Where on earth is Lampedusa?

Australians are unfortunately used to headlines that another ‘boatload of asylum seekers’ has called for help near Christmas Island. All too frequently the Australian Navy is called upon to rescue people from boats that were not seaworthy enough to make the journey from a port in Indonesia, Sri Lanka or another location to the north of Christmas Island.

Enough printer’s ink to fill Sydney Harbour, and hundreds of millions of electrons, have been used in the past twenty years to ‘explain’ (read justify) positions in relation to asylum seekers. If you want to discover the actual and legal position on ‘irregular arrivals into any country’, you could begin with the Refugee Council of Australia’s website. The Refugee Council of Australia offers the following definition of a refugee – from the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees – to which Australia is a signatory:

Any person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his/her nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country.

Like a lot of Australians I was saddened but not surprised at the loss of human life when the media reported during October this year that another boatload carrying asylum seekers had sunk – and it was estimated that 345 of the passengers on the ship had drowned. What I wasn’t expecting was the mention of the location of the incident – Lampedusa. I have a reasonable knowledge of Australian geography and my first question was ‘Where on earth is Lampedusa?’, given that the narrative widely promoted within Australia for a number of years described asylum seeker boats as a purely Australian/South-East Asian problem. I was curious when I found out that Lampedusa is, in fact, in Italy – and the asylum seekers were from northern Africa.

It was reported widely in Australia, as in Guardian Australia on the 10th October, that those that drowned at Lampedusa were to be given a state funeral by the Italian Government. When the Italian Government later determined that those who lost their lives would receive a memorial service rather than the state funeral promised by the Italian Prime Minister, criticism came from a number of influential parties, including the Mayor of Lampedusa.

Guardian Australia also reported that:

This year more than 30,000 migrants have sailed to Italy, of whom 7,500 were Syrians fleeing their civil war, 7,500 Eritreans escaping a brutal regime and 3,000 avoiding violence in Somalia.

By contrast, Operation Sovereign Borders Acting Commander, Air Marshal Mark Binskin announced the same week:

For the October 4-11 reporting period, a total of 111 people were transferred to the offshore processing centres on Nauru.

Since the new government's Operation Sovereign Borders began three weeks ago, a total of 215 arrivals have been transferred to the centres, including Papua New Guinea's Manus Island.

As of Friday, there were 1059 detainees on Manus, 800 on Nauru and 2176 on Christmas Island.

Let’s compare those numbers. Up to 345 people died at Lampedusa while 111 people in total arrived in Australia in the same week. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) gives a detailed listing of asylum seeker numbers, globally, in an Excel spreadsheet.

Australians have often been described as living in a land where ‘everyone is equal’ and ‘where Jack is as good as his master’ and in a society ‘where anyone will help out a mate’. There is some evidence to support this mantra; for example:

  • In the immediate aftermath of the 2011 flooding throughout Queensland, a number of cities and towns were overwhelmed with volunteers willing to help those less well-off get back on their feet. Brisbane City Council provided a fleet of buses to transport the ‘mud army’, consisting of thousands of people, across the city to areas of need.
  • Every SES person on the ground from Byron Bay to Port Headland is a volunteer, as are those members of service clubs such as Apex or Lions. They all make a magnificent effort to help out a mate who needs it, in some form or other, every year.
Australia is supposed to be a Christian country. Our current Prime Minister is a self-confessed practising Roman Catholic – and commenced training to be a Jesuit priest. His immediate predecessor was frequently shown on the Sunday news bulletins leaving an Anglican church. There is a paragraph in the bible that can be paraphrased as ‘do unto others as they do to you’. There are similar sentiments in the holy book of Islam, The Koran, and in Buddhism.

Despite this tenet of faith, and the claims of being a ‘Christian’ country, Australians frequently make the following statements:

1. People who arrive here and claim refugee status are taking our jobs.

The evidence would suggest not, as the unemployment rate in Australia has been sitting at under 10% since the days when Bob Hawke was Prime Minister. In fact, the entire argument for the resettlement of refugees from Europe, post World War II, was to expand the country and its economy.

In Italy, for example, towns are welcoming the chance to be revitalised by the settlement of asylum seekers seeking refugee status.

2. People who arrive here and claim refugee status can claim more benefits than ‘ordinary Aussies’.

The Refugee Council of Australia states:

A refugee who has permanent residency in Australia receives exactly the same social security benefits as any Australian resident in the same circumstances. Refugees apply for social security through Centrelink like everyone else and are assessed for the different payment options in the same way as everyone else. There are no separate Centrelink allowances that one can receive simply by virtue of being a refugee.

3. Asylum seekers are queue jumpers or ‘illegal immigrants’.

Under the UN Convention, you cannot apply for refugee status from your own country. Refugee camps also work on a needs basis – rather than a formal queue.

Illegal immigrants are those that enter legally and overstay their Visa – there were in excess of 60,000 people in this group in the end of 2011, according to the Herald Sun, and the report suggests the number is climbing. By contrast, at the beginning of October 2013, slightly over 4,000 people are in asylum seeker camps established by the Australian Government.

Australians raise these kinds of questions regarding refugees. Italians criticise their government for not providing state funerals, although attempting to provide assistance and support to those that survive. Why is there such a difference in attitude between the Italians and the Australians?

According to UNHCR, Italy had 17,352 people request asylum in 2012; Australia had 15,996. Remembering that you do not have to claim asylum in the first country you come to, the EU had 358,285 people claim asylum in 2012; our region (Australia and New Zealand) had 16,320. Italy offers state funerals to a large number of victims of a ship sinking – Australia makes pregnant asylum seekers give birth in sub-standard conditions, something criticised by the Royal Australasian College of Physicians.

Various Australian politicians have suggested ‘tough’ asylum seeker policies will stop people getting on unsafe boats and subsequently dying at sea. In Europe, they are asking why people get onto unsafe boats.

You may be surprised to know that even the ultra-conservative Fox News in the US reports European asylum seeker boats that sink sympathetically and apparently has done so for some time; until recently, our media hasn’t.

While the Europeans are discussing ways to ensure people don’t have to get onto unseaworthy boats, we are not. Australian politicians, and sadly a significant proportion of the Australian public, seem to believe that being ‘tough’ on asylum seekers who arrive here will help people accept what may be draconian living conditions in their home country – which is clearly a fallacy. This is treating the symptom rather than the root cause. It could be compared with attempting to turn off a dripping tap with greater force (symptom) rather than replacing the washer (root cause).

The previous and current Australian Governments both claim to take the high moral ground on a number of issues with self-confessed practising Christians as the last two respective Prime Ministers. When the Italians who receive a higher number of asylum seekers per annum than we do are so upset about the unnecessary death of over 300 people – as they should be – what is this country’s excuse for using asylum seekers as a ‘tough on crime’ issue in a similar way to how various state governments are using ‘outlaw’ motor bike groups?

What happened to ‘do unto others’?

How does our treatment of asylum seekers in the 21st century demonstrate the fabled ‘help a mate’ attitude of Australians?

Why are immigrants to Australia victimised when we are all descended from immigrants?

Why are asylum seekers a domestic political issue?

Probably the saddest thing about this issue is that so-called Christian politicians, who claim to value human life, are so blinded by the domestic political opportunity they forget a fundamental belief they claim to live their lives by – ‘do unto others as you wish them to do to you’ – and have convinced a significant proportion of the population of the merits of the case.

What do you think?

What happened to leadership and conviction?

Why are politicians reacting to polls instead of driving them?

In a previous piece on TPS, I contended that politicians had granted political influence to Rupert Murdoch by believing they will ‘live and die’ by the polls and reacting to the fortnightly Murdoch (Newspoll) polls rather than attempting to drive them.

There are two types of relevant polling: ‘voter intention’ polling and ‘issues’ polling. Most attention is given to the first. Politicians, however, often attempt to influence voter intention by reacting to some aspect of issues polling – but this is not driving the polls.

What I mean by ‘driving the polls’ is setting the agenda through displaying leadership and conviction, acting on principle and providing inspiration for a better future. They are the approaches that I believe can make people take notice and that will then be reflected in the polls.

First, one needs to understand what polls are telling us.

All pollsters when put on the spot will fall back on the old rule that a poll only measures public opinion, it does not predict it. Polls tell you what public opinion was, not what it will be.

Which is where people misunderstand the meaning of margin of error. This weekend Newspoll will be polling Federal voting intention, and the poll will be reported with a margin of error of about 3%. That means there is a 95% probability that the real measure of people’s voting intentions this weekend will lie within 3% of the figure reported by Newspoll.

That does not mean that come the election, the result will be within 3% of the poll. The margin of error is a measure of the error margin on a sample, not the error margin on a prediction.

Followers of TPS well know that the media pursues each voter intention poll as if it is predicting the outcome of any forthcoming election, even twelve months out. Reports will often carry the caveat, ‘if an election was held this weekend’, but the accompanying commentary usually makes it appear this is bad for the election prospects of whichever party is trailing.

The other major issue with media reporting of polls is the insistence that every little movement has meaning. The truth is that if a poll moves only 1-2% it is within the margin of error and may, in fact, indicate no movement at all.

Unfortunately, politicians seem to believe this media commentary and start trawling the issues polling for something they can seize on that may lift their standing in the voter intention polls.

While voter intention polls are not predictive, they do say a great deal about the electorate’s view of politicians at particular points in time.

Before the 2007 election Rudd was telling the populace, and indeed later repeated it at the United Nations, that climate change was ‘the greatest moral challenge facing our generation’. In meeting that conviction after he came to Government, he negotiated a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) with then Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull. (The value of that scheme has been much debated but that aspect is irrelevant to the argument here.) Whatever its worth, it was a fulfilment of the rhetoric that preceded it. He also ratified the Kyoto Protocol and gave a national apology to the Indigenous Stolen Generations, both of which he had promised during the election campaign. It gave the appearance of conviction and leadership.

After being elected in 2007, Labor had maintained a strong ‘two party preferred’ (2PP) lead over the Opposition in the polls but on 27 April 2010 Rudd announced he was abandoning, at least for then, the CPRS.

The Newspoll results before and after the announcement make a telling point.

Poll dates
Labor primary
vote (%)
LNP primary
vote (%)
Labor 2PP
vote (%)
vote (%)
16-18 April 43 40 54 46
30 Apr – 2 May 35 43 49 51

Labor suffered an 8% loss in its primary vote and a 10% turn-around in the 2PP in just a fortnight. Voters were disillusioned - again!

Rudd had given the appearance of a man of conviction, with a grand rhetoric of his vision, but shown there was little conviction behind the rhetoric. He had abandoned leadership and the voters knew it.

Julia Gillard’s reference to the ‘real Julia’ during the 2010 election campaign confirmed the view that politicians are all ‘spin’, reacting to polls, being told what to say and do by media advisers, and offering little to lead the nation.

Abbott’s later inflated rhetoric, such as Whyalla being wiped off the map by the introduction of a carbon price, didn’t help. After the introduction of the carbon price on 1 July 2012, none of Abbott’s hyperbole came to fruition. For much of the electorate it was simply another case of not being able to believe what politicians told them.

What Rudd, Gillard and Abbott managed to do was reinforce the population’s low regard of politicians as demonstrated by the Reader’s Digest annual poll of ‘Australia’s Most Trusted Professions’. Although the number and naming of professions has changed over the years, politicians have consistently rated near car salesmen and similar groups:

  • In 2007 politicians were ranked equal last, with car salesmen, of 40 professions (actually ranked 38th owing to tied results). Journalists were ranked 34th, with real estate agents, sex workers and psychics-astrologists separating them from politicians.
  • In 2010 politicians were ranked 38th of 40 professions, having climbed above car salesmen and also above telemarketers. Journalists were then 35th, with real estate agents and sex workers still between them and the politicians.
  • In 2013 the list included 50 professions and politicians ranked 49th, above only door-to-door salespeople. Journalists were then 43rd while talkback radio hosts, real estate agents, sex workers, call centre staff and insurance salespeople ranked below them but above politicians.
It could be said that this creates ‘a perfect storm’ fuelling the electorate’s cynicism: untrusted journalists reporting on untrusted politicians, using polls in unjustified ways.

The Rudd example in 2010 demonstrates that what politicians say and do influences the polls, particularly negatively when what they do does not match what they say.

Abbott fed this constantly in his attacks on the Government when Opposition Leader and reacted to it at his swearing-in as Prime Minister when he said ‘We hope to be judged by what we have done, rather than by what we have said we would do.’ He is essentially trying to ‘cover his arse’ for those times when his actions do not match his words. He is not attempting to drive the polls in any positive way but merely trying to dampen them in advance.

In the lead up to, and during the 2013 election, there were many examples of politicians reacting to both voter intention and issues polling and precious few (actually none that I recall) of attempting to drive the polls. Their reactions were intended to neutralise issues the polls were telling them may influence voters; for example:

  • Abbott accepted the NDIS and ‘Gonski’ because the polls showed these were popular in the electorate and would favour Labor if he opposed them;
  • Rudd brought forward the move to emissions trading by one year, to replace the fixed price on carbon emissions, and adopted a much tougher stance on refugees arriving by boat, also in response to polling.
What neither chose to do was state that their position was right and argue for it: conviction had disappeared. The voters saw this for what it was: simply politics, no conviction, no leadership, resulting in an increased vote for minor parties (12.4%, excluding the Greens, compared with 6.9% in 2010). The electorate knows that a minor party will never govern the country but at least they appear to stand for something, even Family First, rather than wavering in the wind to every nuance of the polls.

By the time of the election, I think many voters were feeling they had Hobson’s choice between a media-managed politician and a poll-driven politician who had previously lost credibility.

Abbott’s approach can perhaps be justified because the LNP held a comfortable lead in most polls leading to the election, and to keep them that way he essentially had to do nothing – which is exactly what he did!

Rudd had lost credibility after his 2010 decision and did nothing during the campaign to regain it. There was an initial surge in the polls when he resumed the leadership but his decisions, such as those noted above, merely reiterated he was just another politician reacting to polls. To overcome his previous loss of credibility he needed to display conviction and provide inspiration, but he didn’t.

In December 1941, John Curtin took the nation with him in his inspiring speech that Australia would ‘look to America’. It is sometimes forgotten that the speech also took the nation to a full ‘war footing’, affecting the lives of every Australian and promising difficult times ahead. Leadership can be about unpopular but necessary decisions, and arguing the case and inspiring people to accept them for future benefit. But current politicians, by constantly reacting to polling, are avoiding such decisions.

There are more recent speeches that have provided inspiration: e.g. Keating’s ‘Redfern speech’ and his speech at the entombment of the Unknown Soldier at the Australian War Memorial, and Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations.

There was positive movement in the polls after Keating’s speech at the Australian War Memorial (11 November 1993): Labor increased 2% in voter intention, the LNP dropped 3%, and Keating’s ‘satisfaction’ jumped 3% (but only from 26% to 29%).

There was also a movement in the polls around the time of Rudd’s ‘apology’ (13 February 2008). In the Newspoll conducted on 15-17 February 2008 Labor’s primary vote was 46% but a fortnight later had jumped to 51%. I think the ‘apology’ played a part but the poll may have included a reaction to the Coalition’s childish behaviour on 22 February when it took a cardboard cut-out of Rudd into the Parliament. The Coalition’s behaviour may have made, by comparison, the speech’s dignity and inspiration appear more relevant.

It suggests such inspirational speeches can have an impact. And if joined with conviction, principles and leadership, they become a more potent force for driving the polls.

When politicians take a stand, it is legitimate to ask are they are doing so on principle or reacting to something appearing in issues polling? Even if the latter, a principled stand on an issue can give the politician credit for the future and flow into voter intention.

John Howard, for example, not known for his oratory, at least took a principled decision regarding the ‘gun buy-back’ after the Port Arthur massacre in 1996. He did so despite strong opposition from gun owners and some National members of his own Coalition, but with the overwhelming support of the majority of the population. In that case, he was reacting to strong public opinion following the massacre (at the time the worst in the world in terms of numbers killed by a lone gunman) and followed through despite the opposition.

In a modern democracy, issues polling can be important in revealing the ‘will of the people’ but if followed unthinkingly by politicians, without underpinning principles to weigh the polls against, politicians will often react with bad policy that has not been thought through.

If the electorate is currently cynical and distrustful of politicians, it is because the politicians have given them good grounds to be. To change the electorate’s perception, politicians need to stop reacting to polls with ‘band-aid’ (bad) policies. They need to:

  • provide inspiration,
  • show conviction for what they believe, and
  • provide leadership.
With conviction, leadership and inspiration they can shape the issues polling and influence voter intention. If they do this, politicians will be driving the polls again, something they have chosen not to do since … well, I’m not sure I can remember the last time!

Can politicians really set the (issues) agenda with genuine leadership?

Will the electorate listen if they hear conviction in political statements?

Can an inspiring vision for the future change voting intention?

Will all three together drive the polls?

What do you think?

Time for a third force in Ozpol

Australia needs a third, viable, major political party.

This is obvious, to me. At their core, the policies of the two major parties are diametrically opposed. The Labor party is the progressive party that builds the country’s infrastructure and provides welfare programs. The Liberal party is the regressive party that sells the infrastructure and bolsters business in the fond belief that the created wealth will trickle down to those less well off.

The above view is a simple one. Some may argue that the policies of the two major parties are very similar. I have never thought so. I think the claim of ‘similarity’ is easily made, picked up and repeated without being thoroughly examined. Recently, for example, the former LNP Opposition argued against the Labor government’s Better Schools funding (Gonski), but at the last minute agreed to maintain the policy if it won government. This does not mean the two major parties now have the same policy. It means a bone of contention was removed at the last minute to appease certain sections of the electorate.

There is no guarantee the LNP government will keep the policy because it has a strategy of maintaining fears and doubts about the state of the economy and a mania for a Budget surplus. The same could apply to Labor’s National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). Consider also the different approaches of the two major parties to environmental protection and carbon pollution.

I’ll leave it to others to nit-pick over the sameness and differences of the two majors. I’ll simply state that the almost unbelievable arrogance and self-indulgence of the Labor governments of the past six years have given the LNP Coalition a free ride into office. If the people were forcefully rejecting Labor, they were not necessarily voting for the coalition’s policies. Given the nature of the news media coverage at the time, few would be aware of what policies were being offered by either party.

We now have to endure the dismantling of some of Labor’s achievements and the sale of public assets, not because that is what Australia needs right now but because it is what Liberal political philosophy dictates. This will happen because there is simply no choice at present. You either have government by Labor or Liberal, and they are worlds apart (see: Prologue to IPA’s 100-item list to change Australia).

If former PM Kevin Rudd’s party reforms work, there is hope for a more stable Labor government at some future time. But it was Rudd’s opposition to union factionalism (and a decline in opinion polling for a number of reasons) that got him sacked in the first place – by the Right-wing union faction. The Right wing’s man, Bill Shorten, has won the leadership contest over Anthony Albanese, and it remains to be seen if the internal wrangling will continue, with Rudd fiddling away on the back bench, playing the game of sabotage for which he is renowned.

The Liberal party coalition with the National Party of Australia is not as secure as the Liberals would have you believe. There were tensions during the past three years (notably between the WA Libs and Nats over issues related to wheat marketing), but the Liberal PR machine did a good job of largely keeping it out of the news media.

New points of contention are rising. They concern the fate of the National Broadband Network (NBN), the sale of wheat marketing infrastructure and agricultural land to foreigners and the continuing feeling of isolation and neglect in country and regional areas. Liberal plans to cap university places and a disguised attack on university union funding have led to protests from the Nationals and their country cousins. The Liberal’s plans to devolve environmental decision-making to the States in order to speed up mining project initiation will lead to more friction. Farmers and some country townsfolk have for years been concerned about the encroachment of mining and fracking activities and their effects on lifestyles and health. The abolition of the carbon tax, the cutting of red and green tape and moves to fast track mining approvals are causes for concern – creating points of tension.

The Liberals are unlikely to gain government without the support of the Nationals (2013 federal election primary vote ALP 4,311,431 - 33.4%, Liberal 4,134,750 - 32%, Nationals, various forms, 1,748,066 - 13.5%). Is it conceivable that the Nationals could withdraw their support of the Liberals? Is it more likely they would use the threat of withdrawal to force concessions on policies? Their deputy leader, Barnaby Joyce, has achieved stage two of his goal to become the federal leader: he now has a Lower House seat. When federal leader Warren Truss retires, Joyce probably will become federal leader of the National party. When he became leader of the Nationals in the Senate in 2008 he warned the Coalition government it could no longer rely on the support of his party in the Senate. Joyce crossed the floor 19 times during the Howard government era and is a threat to Liberal power. I’ve no doubt the Liberals will use their news media machinery to destroy him if push comes to shove.

The Liberals and the Nationals have an agreement to contest the same seats in some areas. I don’t know how either party finds that situation tolerable. Losing a seat to your ally must create an uneasy situation, especially when there are differences in party policies.

If the Nationals were to pull support, would another party fill the void in the coalition, would Labor govern for decades, or would a third party arise? Neither Katter’s Australia Party nor Palmer’s United Party are yet strong enough to constitute a third, viable, force. Katter and Palmer have their origins in Queensland’s Liberal National Party. The Nationals had their origin in the defunct, or rebadged, Country Party. Given their history and interests today, both men are likely to side with the Liberal federal government, although Palmer’s collection of policies and some of his public pronouncements are hard to reconcile with Liberal philosophy.

Illustration by Kaja Malouf

There are also serious questions about whether Katter and Palmer are stable enough to be taken seriously. In my opinion, Joyce, Katter and Palmer belong in the same silly boat – each of them rowing in a different direction. Why the eponymous party names, in the case of Katter and Palmer? Are they capitalising on the unfortunate trend towards Presidential personality campaigning? The last thing this country needs is another egomaniac pulling the levers and it seems the ALP has recently recognised the dangers in that.

Putting aside the turmoil of WWII Australian politics, there have been few notable attempts to establish a third, viable, political party. Some may remember the split in Labor ranks (1955) that led to the formation of the Democratic Labor Party (1957), with one elected Member today (Senator John Madigan). For that split we can thank the extreme Right-wing Catholic ‘Bob’ Santamaria. His ghost and anti-union rhetoric lives on today in the form of arch disciple Tony Abbott.

Another serious attempt to form a third force was made by the Australian Democrats (1977), a merger of the Australia Party and the New Liberal Movement, led by former Liberal federal Minister Don Chipp. The Australian Democrats had promise and some success in getting Senate seats, before gradually tearing itself to pieces over a 30-year period. It is reorganising, but initially on a States-only basis.

There was also Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. Its xenophobic stance attracted wide support in Queensland, where the party originated, but attracted anger elsewhere, especially in the federal parliament and the news media. The party won 19 State seats in Queensland – scaring the pants off the Liberal party. The now xenophobic ‘Stop the boats’ Tony Abbott responded by creating and raising funds for the Australians for Honest Politics Trust – money that was used to take Hanson and co-founder David Ettridge to court for ‘electoral fraud’, which resulted in them being jailed for some months. Ettridge is now suing Tony Abbott, claiming $1.5 million damages. Hanson failed to win a NSW federal seat at the 2013 election.

‘Tearing itself to pieces’ seems to be the disease of the Australian Labor Party – and it’s contagious. The Greens caught the bug some time ago and went into severe regression on 26 September, 2013. Numerous staff resigned over the running of the federal election campaign. There is some uncertainty about whether there was a simultaneous attempt to install the party’s deputy leader, Lower House MP Adam Bandt, or Senator Sarah Hanson-Young as national leader in place of Senator Christine Milne.

The Greens need to pull themselves together after the punishing swing to the Liberals, which cost the Greens 4.7% of their vote, along with two Senators (although ‘Senator’ Scott Ludlam has won a rare recount). It would be a shame if the Greens were to destroy themselves as other alternative parties have done. They seem to me to be a natural partner for Labor, although they have had problems aligning policy details on carbon pricing and refugee or asylum seeker policies.

Perhaps the problem with a Greens Labor alliance is that Labor sees itself as the party with all the policies and all the solutions for any given problem. If that’s the case, it’s hard to see how it could cooperate with any other party, even one that was somewhat similar. In that case, it has to find some way to counter the LNP coalition, the future risk of ‘hung’ or minority governments, the trend towards increasing numbers of Independent or non-aligned Senators and the frustration of losing an election due to the distribution of preferences.

There is also a risk that Labor is not strong enough to overcome the powers aligned against it today, especially the commercially owned news media and the persistent effort over the past decade at least to install a Right-wing bias in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). To get off topic for a moment, some way must be found to guarantee the impartiality of ABC News and Current Affairs because its untraceable efforts at ‘balance over time’ make it appear to be always unbalanced in one direction or the other. The balance within its supposedly independent complaints body also warrants investigation.

The September 2013 election was remarkable for the number of new parties that fought for a seat, especially in the Senate. Next July we will have a motley crew of ‘Independent’ Senators, with a bloc of four consisting of three Palmer United Party Senators and Senator Ricky Muir of the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party. Writing in the Business Spectator (a wholly owned News Corp subsidiary), veteran business journalist Robert Gottliebsen claims Tony Abbott has the Senate sewn up and the PUP bloc, including Senator Muir, will support the Liberal government’s policies. That article, written on 9 October, is at odds with what Clive Palmer said the following day, commenting on his deal with Senator Muir.

It’s just possible that none of them will sit in the Senate because the Mad Monk may bring on a Double Dissolution to satisfy his lust for unrestricted power. See Gottliebsen’s first six points below for his thoughts on what might trigger a DD. But Gottliebsen also says Tony Abbott might avoid a DD because the voters hate early elections. I have yet to read or hear anyone ask why Tony Abbott wants total power in both Houses and what he’ll do with it if he gets it (see ‘What Tony Abbott will do’, in relation to the proposals of the Institute of Public Affairs).

Gottliebsen, who might have a reliable source of information within the federal government, has also written about Tony Abbott’s 12-point plan to transform Australia. (See Gottliebsen's first six points of Abbott's 12-point plan and the second six points.)

That 12-point plan is another reason why Australia needs a viable third political party. As stated above, when you get down to it the two majors are not similar – they are very different. When the government changes hands, the country swings wildly to the Left or the Right. The Right believes it must move much further to the Right because the Left will inevitably take the country further Left again (see again IPA 100 item agenda prologue). It’s about as silly as politics can get, with ideology overruling common sense and even the common good. Prime examples are Abbott’s determination to abolish carbon pricing, disband environmental advisory bodies, cut funding to NGOs, install a third rate NBN and introduce an outlandish Paid Parental Leave scheme to replace the one we have.

Gottliebsen’s 12-point plan story and the IPA’s 100-point plan (12 of which points Tony Abbott has said he will adopt and implement) demonstrate the chaotic nature of the Duopoly roundabout.

A third party that can win and govern alone would interrupt these wild pendulum swings. If a third party was occasionally successful in gaining government there would be less opportunity and a longer wait between ruinous bouts of excessive sell-offs and cutbacks or expensive social welfare programs.

Looking way ahead, what is the outcome of the platforms of the two major parties, and where do we go from there? After the Liberals have sold everything and cut taxes, regulations and wages to the bone, what’s next? After Labor has cemented every possible workplace and social welfare program permanently in place, what then? Is this why these two major parties are subtly changing, sometimes appearing to be similar, but always retaining the essential difference of Labour versus Capital? There is, perhaps, only so much political parties can achieve before they become irrelevant, useless or merely tax collection and distribution agencies.

In the meantime, where is the third alternative or even steadying influence? One party that emerged about 12 months before the election was The Australian Independents. It had a decent list of policies and some wholesome middle-class candidates. But it played its cards a bit too close to its chest and seemed to be publicity shy, which is not to say it was secretive. The leader, Dr Patricia Petersen, who I am told is a long-term perpetual candidate, is unfortunately hard to contact.

Katter’s, Palmer’s and Petersen’s parties offer something that was pioneered by the Australian Democrats. They say they are recruiting candidates who will swear to vote for local issues – true local representatives. Revisiting this issue is a reflection on how fed up we are with the majors and the bigger minors*. But how will the practice work out when a local issue clashes with the party’s stated policy?

*See The Sydney Morning Herald editorial of 24 September, 2013: ‘Greens need to win middle Australia - and follow Don Chipp's diktat’.

I’d vote for an Atheists Party. An atheists party can’t simply stand for non-belief in a spiritual being. It must have a raft of policies. One would be getting religion out of schools and focusing on science and ethics instead. I see atheism as essential for the future well-being of ourselves and our planet – especially for the environment and the critters we should be sharing it with. My atheism is about reality, about being grounded in reality and relying on science to understand our world and our place in it. We need to get real about our world, our situation (see IPCC Summary for Policymakers, the 2013 report). Leaving the big outcomes to the good graces of a mythical being is a risky strategy.

I have avoided a detailed discussion of policies and their alternatives. We are not short of political parties or policies. Like many other things in this country, we now have an embarrassment of riches. What we don’t have is a viable third force. But we do have alternatives that do not represent a drastic, even catastrophic, change. We need one of these third elements to gain sufficient support so that we can have change without chaos. Moving back and forth from Liberal to Labor is chaotic – the change is often too great and too disruptive.

I don’t want to overplay the Labor drum, but for its sins of self-indulgence Labor has been turfed and the people have no choice but to give the Liberals another go. They have made that decision without being fully aware of the Liberal agenda, of the changes that will now take place. It is naïve of anyone to think the agenda consists merely of Tony Abbott’s six-point slogans:

  • We’ll build a stronger, more diversified economy so everyone can get ahead;
  • We’ll scrap the carbon tax so the average family will be $550 better off next year alone;
  • We’ll get the Budget back under control by ending Labor’s waste;
  • We’ll create two million new jobs within a decade;
  • We’ll stop the boats with proven policies;
  • And we’ll build the roads of the 21st century.
If you can read between the lines of the above slogans, you will see there is a lot of missing detail. The devil that is the Liberal philosophy is in those missing details of policy implementation and what that means for various classes of citizens.

There’s plenty of room for a strong third party, plenty of people fed up with the chaos of frequent change within the Duopoly. We don’t need a political party that scares industry, business and investors to death, or one that drives pensioners, the disabled and the disadvantaged to an early grave. Because of eternal frustration with the Left Right swing of the pendulum, it is time for a third party with a broad vision and a plan for our future.

For those who are not welded to one ideology, I’ve put links to several parties’ policies on one page on my website. You’ll find a menu under Categories, on the left-hand side.

Tony Abbott’s ‘Cone of Silence’

Those ‘of a certain age’ will remember the 60s’ TV show Get Smart that featured the brilliant writing of Mel Brooks as well as the incredible acting of Don Adams, Barbara Feldon and Edward Platt. Don Adams was Agent 86 in the US Secret Agency known as Control; Barbara Feldon was Agent 99 and Edward Platt was ‘Chief’. Their nemesis was an organisation called Kaos. Those who know the show will instantly remember the ‘Cone of Silence’, a piece of ‘high technology’ equipment. It was supposed to ensure that if microphones were planted in the Chief’s office, they would be useless. While the Cone of Silence may have been a good idea, the implementation left a lot to be desired. (For those unfamiliar with the concept – this clip explains how it failed.)

In a complete turn-around from his actions in Opposition - where appearing in an industrial setting with freshly ironed hi-vis vest was de rigueur - the Prime Minister now wants to control the information flow to the media differently. It seems, now that the LNP has won the election, the Prime Minister wants to operate in a Cone of Silence. Will it be any better than the version that people have been laughing at for decades on TV?

Tony Abbott has declared at a news conference that he will only speak as Prime Minister when he has something to say and that he won’t be feeding the 24-hour news cycle. It has also been widely reported that all interviews with Ministers have to be approved by the Prime Minister’s Office 24 hours prior to the interview. (It is ironic that the decision that all Ministers must seek approval prior to participating in interviews was leaked!)

Evidence of this ‘cone of silence’ policy can be found in three recent events:

  • Immigration Minister Scott Morrison announces that refugee boat arrivals and ‘turn backs’ will be only discussed at a weekly briefing due to ‘operational security’ rather than as the event occurs.
  • Treasurer Joe Hockey announces that the Federal Government’s finances are being investigated line by line, while having to announce a better than expected result from the last financial year.
  • Foreign Minister Julie Bishop meets with her Indonesian counterpart to discuss refugee boats and declares the meeting details will not be disclosed or discussed.
A month or so into the term of the Coalition Government, just how is this policy panning out?

After Abbott’s announcement, there had been plenty of muted supporting comment from the media: Jacqueline Maley’s ‘Don’t feed the chooks’; Barry Cassidy’s ‘Abbott wise to pull back... but not too far’; and Dee Madigan’s ‘Tone it down’.

Then on September 26, Fairfax headlined a piece ‘Abbott assures nation he is hard at work’. Perhaps Abbott realised that ‘refusing to participate in the news cycle’ could be construed as ‘nothing was happening’. Obviously this was a message the Prime Minister didn’t want to send.

And a rather interesting piece in the SMH from Tony Wright followed on 27th September:

Small factory in the suburbs? Check. Fluro jacket? Check. It is as if Tony Abbott never wanted the election campaign to end.

Mention the carbon tax? Promise to get the budget back in control? Stop the boats? Build the roads of the 21st century?

Check, check, check and check.

This report continues:

He could barely keep his hands off the containers of laundry powders and stain removers. His craving for a factory photo-op satiated, the Prime Minister offered himself to cameras and journalists for precisely the sort of doorstop he held every day of the campaign.

Scott Morrison’s clampdown on refugee boat announcements has gone equally as well.

Someone on Christmas Island has been using Twitter to advise how many people arrive on each boat. On 27 September the ABC and commercial media were reporting that 10 refugee boats had arrived since the election date, three of them since the Coalition Government had been sworn in. Over the weekend of 28 and 29 September, a news story unfolded on the commercial television networks reporting that people had drowned in another refugee boat heading for Australia. The reporters were stating clearly they were not getting comment from the Government – and that was simply not good enough.

Now that the Prime Minister and Foreign Ministers have spoken to their Indonesian counterparts, apparently the LNP policy wasn’t to ‘turn around’ refugee boats anyway:

Morrison said the Coalition had “never had a policy of towing boats back to Indonesia” and blamed “misrepresentation over a long period of time” in the media for that impression.

In late September Joe Hockey released the final accounting for the Federal Government’s 2012-2013 Financial Year where the headline was an $18.8 billion deficit (down from a projected $19.4 billion on August 2, 2013).

According to Michael Pascoe in Fairfax media:

It's yet another case of politics overshadowing economics: while newbie Treasurer Joe Hockey insinuates otherwise, the final count for the 2012-13 federal budget is an outstanding achievement, a monument to a skilled Treasury performance in very difficult circumstances.

Hockey certainly didn’t give credit to either his Department or the former Treasurer for a job well done. However, he has ‘deferred’ the surplus promised by Abbott while listing how often Swan promised the same thing.

The new Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, met her Indonesian counterpart at the United Nations in New York to discuss, amongst other issues, the Coalition Government policy on refugee boats. According to the Foreign Minister, the conversation was private and Australia’s position was explained.

The Indonesian Government had a differing opinion – it released the notes of the discussion while stating that the policy of ‘turning back the boats’ was not supported. As reported by the ABC:

The ABC's Indonesia correspondent George Roberts told PM, the statement is a rare move from a nation that is usually much more circumspect in diplomacy.

"Even in recent history, the foreign minister has been very reluctant to speak openly and has been very diplomatic about it," he said.

"So this kind of language is quite strong and quite interesting indeed.”

While there would be little support for yet another three years of election campaigning, does PM Abbott really expect that all of the fourth and fifth estates will, now that he is in power, concede ‘there is nothing to see here and let’s move on’?

Early in October, an opinion piece by Mark Kenny reported:

In one of the lighter moments towards the end of the recent presidential-style election campaign, Labor's campaign headquarters issued a press statement configured as a faux police bulletin.

It said grave fears were held for the whereabouts of once high profile Liberals, Peter Dutton, Sophie Mirabella, and Eric Abetz.

The respective health, industry, and workplace relations shadow ministers had become almost invisible. Labor was desperate to draw them on to policy terrain usually judged as stronger for the ALP.

The crux of the article is the ALP’s claim that while disciplined media management is a positive in Opposition, it is a negative in Government. Abbott is maintaining the same management policy in Government, which leads us as the employers of the Government to believe they are doing nothing. When the inevitable ‘crisis’ happens, not only are the relevant Ministers unprepared for the attention it will place on their shoulders, they will be an easy mark for the more critical elements of the media pack.

It is often said that those that don’t remember history are bound to repeat it. Probably the most relevant example of this is the former Premier of Victoria Ted Ballieu. News reports at the time of his overthrow (who said the ALP was the only political party to turf out current leaders while in power?) suggested that a large part of the reason for his demise was his lack of connection with the media, leading to the Victorian Government becoming almost invisible. Ballieu is still a member of the Victorian Parliament – but no one outside Victoria hears anything about him.

By contrast, when the self-confessed ‘media tart’ Peter Beattie chose to run in a southern Brisbane seat in the recent Federal election nearly a decade after being Premier of Queensland he was the subject of national media coverage. Beattie knew how to participate in the media. He had been re-elected as Premier in 2001, and in 2004 in the middle of a scandal involving members of his Government – promising to ‘clean the mess up’. While publicity may not have helped Beattie win the Federal Seat in 2013, one never knows if the result would have been worse for the ALP if Beattie had not run.

Politicians in general like to control the message and in this respect Tony Abbott is no different from those that preceded him. Both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard attempted to manage the media in different ways: Rudd by going into infinite detail when questioned and Gillard on occasions by literally standing there and taking all questions until there were no more. Both of them had good policies and decisions to publicise but limited success in crafting a story that the media accepted. Ultimately, the lack of the ability to craft and generate ‘good’ news stories about life in Australia led to their demise at the hands of the members of their own political party. In both cases there were other factors at play as well. Rudd’s apparent ‘control freak’ tendencies, and various sections of the ALP never resolving their differences with the way in which Kevin Rudd was replaced by Gillard, certainly didn’t help. It could be argued that internal tensions didn’t help concentrate the previous Government’s mind fully on projecting their message to the country.

Despite the ALP Government’s success at managing the negotiation of a hung parliament for half the time they were in power, as well as leaving a number of programs that will benefit Australia for generations, they will be remembered for a largely self-inflicted loss of the media battle.

The Cone of Silence used on Get Smart was designed to be an object of fun and derision. There are already signs that the media is treating Abbott’s Cone of Silence with the same derision. Fairfax media has been ‘crowd surfing’ recently, asking people to help them find examples of ‘travel rorts’, while Abbott would have been much happier if his contribution to the current APEC conference in Indonesia was the only news.

Will Abbott eventually find the ‘sweet spot’ between Ballieu and Beattie’s media styles?

Will he ‘trust’ his Ministers to be the ‘adults’ he claims make up his Government?

What will the media do if Abbott continues the policy of non-engagement as media control? Will the reporters and editors that have been on a controlled drip feed from the LNP Opposition for the past three years make it up, look for leaks or accept the status quo as the Coalition Government ‘turns off the easy story tap’?

What do you think?


How the west was NOT won by Murdoch

Before the September election, some political pundits were predicting a Labor ‘wipeout’ in its western Sydney heartland. It did not happen.

Two Labor seats out of eight in western Sydney fell to the Liberals. Arguably, two seats, classified as southern Sydney by the Australian Electoral Commission, could be added to the list as they are part of Sydney’s central southern suburbs and border the central Labor belt (from Sydney to Penrith along the western railway line). There are reasons, however, other than the Murdoch press that these seats fell. More important are the six seats that did not fall.

The two western seats to fall were Reid and Lindsay: both border LNP seats and have areas (booths) that are predominantly Liberal voting. In Lindsay the central area around Penrith is Labor, but the northern and southern ends Liberal. In Reid, the northern half along the Parramatta River tends to be Liberal and the southern, Labor.

They are obviously seats that may move about in elections and be heavily influenced by small changes in electoral boundaries. When Reid was a Labor stronghold the seat included Labor-leaning areas to the west, towards Parramatta, but now those areas are in the Parramatta electorate and Reid includes more Liberal-leaning areas to the east, like the Drummoyne peninsula. Similarly, Lindsay’s boundaries have changed over time to include more Liberal-leaning areas in the north.

Of the two southern Sydney seats that fell, Banks has a similar profile. Barton is a little different, having some Liberal areas in the south, but is predominantly Labor – it was, however, lost by only 493 votes or 0.6% of formal votes. The retirement of the sitting member, Robert McClelland, probably had some influence on the outcome: in fact, the large swing against Labor in Barton (see table below) may also suggest an element of protest at the way McClelland was treated by his Labor colleagues during the preceding two years (demoted within the Ministry in December 2011, then dropped from the Ministry altogether in February 2012).

The swings in first preference votes in these electorates were:

Electorate Labor swing (%) Liberal swing (%) Greens swing (%)
Reid (west) -0.9 + 4.0 - 4.2
Lindsay (west) - 5.5 + 3.3 - 1.7
Barton (south) - 8.1 + 1.7 - 4.9
Banks (south) - 1.9 + 1.5 - 4.6

There is significant variation in what was happening in the electorates despite Murdoch’s Daily Telegraph being a common newspaper across these areas. But in only one electorate, Reid, did the swing against Labor result in an increased swing to the Liberals. The first preference votes went elsewhere and that is particularly marked in Barton.

Even if one argues that the Murdoch campaign was effective in reducing the Labor vote, these figures suggest that it did not have the corollary effect of convincing people to vote Liberal.

Some of those first preference votes moved to minor parties which may more reflect an attitude of ‘a pox on both your houses’.

The influence of the press is further questioned when one considers that within Reid, there was actually a swing to Labor in the five booths that make up Auburn, a core Labor area of the electorate: the swings to Labor in those booths ranged from 0.6% to 5.7%.

Does this mean that the Murdoch campaign actually convinced more Labor-leaning voters to vote Labor?

Labor was also affected by the decline in the Greens’ vote, reducing its preference flow. Whether the decline in the Greens vote was a result of the long running Murdoch campaign against them or a result of Labor campaigning strongly to distinguish itself from the Greens is debatable but, given the tenuous impact in the west of the Murdoch campaign against Labor, I lean to the latter.

And among the seats in western Sydney that did not fall, the first preference swings were:

Electorate Labor swing (%) Liberal swing (%) Greens swing (%)
Chifley + 0.7 + 1.9 - 5.8
Blaxland + 4.8 - 0.6 - 3.2
Fowler + 7.9 - 10.2 - 3.3
McMahon - 1.1 + 4.3 - 5.1
Parramatta - 3.2 + 3.6 - 2.7
Greenway + 2.2 - 1.3 - 2.3

Overall, Labor increased its first preference vote in four electorates and the Liberal vote fell in three: hardly a ringing endorsement of the effectiveness of the Murdoch campaign! Perhaps on that basis, Labor should ask him to continue the campaign and help increase its vote further next time. And Chifley, Blaxland, Fowler and even McMahon were held on first preference votes alone.

Greenway was influenced by the Liberal candidate being Jaymes Diaz: as Anthony Green said during the election night coverage, it showed that ‘candidates matter’. I suggest, not being an expert, that one quantum of the ‘candidate effect’ in Greenway could be 5.8%, the sum of overcoming the national 3.6% swing to the LNP plus the 2.2% swing to Labor that was achieved. (I would also accept 4.9%, summing the national swing and Diaz’s loss, which would then suggest that, after removing the ‘candidate effect’, there was still a 0.9% swing to Labor.)

The somewhat unusual result in Fowler suggests that the perceived quality of the local candidates was also a factor there but I have, as yet, not found any evidence to confirm this. (If somebody knows, please post a comment!)

What do the results in western Sydney tell us?

On the above figures, it seems that if the Murdoch campaign had any influence it was merely to reinforce existing leanings of particular areas within electorates, whether Liberal or Labor, or of confirmed voters’ views that neither of the major parties deserved their first preference vote. In this sense, the Murdoch campaign may have had more influence in turning voters off politics generally than in influencing votes.

I am not suggesting that the Murdoch campaign had no influence whatsoever but that the influence did not match the effort put into the campaign; nor was it as effective as Murdoch would have us believe.

Clive Palmer’s advertising blitz demonstrates the impact media campaigns can have. In his case, however, because he was starting from scratch, the campaign was as much about what advertising experts call ‘brand recognition’. What he did effectively was make his party known and provide voters an alternative to voting for the major parties, which a proportion of voters was obviously seeking to do. What he had to say mattered less than simply being known.

Murdoch himself believes he is a political force but the screaming anti-Labor headlines of his Daily Telegraph mattered little in the final analysis and appear to have had minimal influence on the vote in western Sydney.

Murdoch was basically granted political influence by the politicians, both here in Australia and in Britain, because the politicians reacted to the Murdoch commentary and polling. Instead of governing, or seeking government, by promoting policies and a vision for the future, politicians slipped into the trap of believing they will ‘live and die’ by the polls. As long as they believe that, they will allow Murdoch to continue to hold sway over them. But as my brief analysis of the vote in western Sydney indicates, the Murdoch influence is not as strong in the electorate.

While the polls generally (not just Murdoch’s polls) were relatively accurate in predicting the national voting outcome, the Government is not elected by a national trend but by winning individual seats in the House of Representatives (HoR). In 1998, for example, Labor won the national vote (51% to 49%) but insufficient seats to defeat the LNP. The published polls have not been very successful in predicting how individual electorates will behave and the figures above show the wide variations that occur between electorates.

The ability of Tony Windsor to hold New England for so many years, before his retirement at this election, and the Jaymes Diaz effect in Greenway, show that the quality of local candidates is crucial. While people know their vote will influence who becomes Prime Minister, they also know they are actually voting for a local candidate, so the quality of that candidate influences voting much more than the Murdoch press.

Strong, locally based campaigns are another effective tool to overcome broader, negative media coverage. The success of Cathy McGowan’s campaign in Indi (in Victoria) against Sophie Mirabella, is evidence of this.

I believe politicians need to ignore the Murdoch press commentary and his fortnightly polls. They are just marketing, linking his news (opinions) and his polls in a continuous marketing cycle for his media, fodder for political commentators, but next to meaningless when a voter walks into a polling station and puts pencil to paper.

What do you think?

(The above analysis used data from three major sources: the Australian Electoral Commission’s The Official 2013 Federal Election Results as at 29 September; and seat by seat guides by Anthony Green from the ABC’s 2013 Federal Election site ‘Electorates A-Z’ and William Bowe’s (aka The Poll Bludger) ‘Election Guides: The House of Representatives’.)

Truth in advertising?

Let me start off with a confession: I like French cars. So much so that I have been a regular poster on Aussiefrogs.com.au for a number of years. I could bore you silly with the differences between a 2009 and a 2012 Peugeot. But I won’t.

Like most internet forums I have seen, and heard about, there is an ‘off-topic’ area on Aussiefrogs that a certain level of membership will allow you to access. Aussiefrogs calls their off-topic thread ‘The Toad Pond’.

Someone recently posed there the question of the future of interest rates under the new Federal Government. After a number of comments from others, I made a comment that the last time the ‘official interest rate’ fell under a Coalition Government was in 2001.

The reality is that official interest rates are controlled by the Reserve Bank of Australia Board. But both sides of politics have claimed in the past (and probably will in the future) that ‘Interest rates will always be lower under a [insert party name here] Government’, while suggesting the media should call out both political parties for blatantly misleading statements.

In The Toad Pond I then pined for a return of some truth in political reporting – if not politics itself. Following my comment there came a number of good-natured ones suggesting that my request for a tad of truth in politics was an impossible dream (as well as questioning my grasp of reality).

The Reserve Bank of Australia’s website states:

The Governor and the Treasurer have agreed that the appropriate target for monetary policy in Australia is to achieve an inflation rate of 2–3 per cent, on average, over the cycle. This is a rate of inflation sufficiently low that it does not materially distort economic decisions in the community. Seeking to achieve this rate, on average, provides discipline for monetary policy decision-making, and serves as an anchor for private-sector inflation expectations.

Clearly, while the government of the day’s policy affects to some extent the monetary policy of the RBA, so does the world economy and other factors that will, in the view of the RBA Board, have a good or bad effect on the Australian economy. Effectively, ‘monetary policy’ is a tool used by the RBA to maintain inflation within the two to three per cent target band, and it changes its policy to achieve that result.

Financial institutions determine their interest rates in some shape of form using the ‘official rate’ from the RBA: products such as home loans are deemed to be newsworthy and usually track fairly closely to the current RBA determination. Business loans and instruments such as credit cards, which don’t really generate as many headlines, are not as volatile. While it might be nice for the Government’s Treasurer to stand in front of the press and suggest that he and the Government he is a member of have produced a fantastic result, in reality they had little to do with it. The recent policy of some banks to set rates independently of RBA decisions bears this out.

So I ponder:

Why are politicians allowed to claim credit for decisions they had little input into?

How is it they are able to make such misleading statements as well?

And how did they get away with the recent bout of election advertising that promised the world if we voted for whomever?

It has long been understood in Australia that there is some legislation that deals with truth in advertising. Clearly, claims that official interest rates will always be lower if a certain party is in power are incorrect because the RBA sets the ‘official interest rate’, not the government of the day.

If we look at the ACCC website, we find a number of organisations that determine if advertising is basically truthful, and that a number of these organisations publish their results.

The ACCC states that:

Honest advertising practices are not just good for business – they are required by law. The Australian Consumer Law contains a number of rules that businesses must follow when advertising and selling products and services …

A number of industry groups regulate advertising within their specific area of expertise, with assistance or oversight from the ACCC. In the case of vehicle manufacturers/importers, that industry body is the Federal Chamber of Automotive (FCAI) Industries. One of the issues FCAI monitor is the impression of ‘dangerous driving’ as reported on the Car Advice website recently when people complained about the lack of truth in a Nissan advertisement, where:

… the ad shows a man driving through the streets as his seemingly pregnant wife is in the passenger seat appearing to be in labor. When the couple arrives at a hospital, the man looks at his watch and proclaims a “personal best”, then the woman lifts her jumper to reveal a pillow playing the part of the baby bump. Reported by Mumbrella, the ASB investigated the ad following complaints that is [sic] displayed dangerous and illegal behaviour and promoted unsafe driving.

Apparently the Nissan advertisement was filmed at slow speed and ‘sped up’ using a faster frame speed and the addition of ‘suitable’ noises. There are two versions of the ad: the second was missing a number of tyre-screeching and engine revving sounds that the first advertisement contained.

In May 2012:

The Federal Government instituted an enquiry to investigate concerns that some ads promote dangerous driving. The inquiry comes in the wake of several car ads falling foul of the advertising watchdog, including an ad for Volvo V60 that this month was ruled to give an impression of ''reckless speed'' and ''unsafe driving''.

Volvo agreed to pull the ad from television after the Advertising Standards Board ruled it should be modified or withdrawn. Last month a Suzuki ad was changed after the ASB determined it promoted reckless driving.

Numerous examples of regulation are available: from protecting people from medicines that have no clinical proof of actually doing what they are claimed to do, to the colours and descriptions of foodstuffs, to claims that are unsubstantiated – such as sugar-filled cereals being ‘good for you’. While opinions may vary on the justification for regulation that can ban advertising that:

  • can be construed as dangerous driving,
  • suggests a medical benefit from taking tablets when there is no proof
  • promotes consumption of food with dubious health claims,
there is here an underlying theme: protecting society from harm.

Why isn’t the act of a political leader offering obvious falsehoods, such as ‘interest rates will always be lower’, also considered ‘illegal’ - given the regulatory theme of protecting society from harm?

Because it isn’t.

The Australian Electoral Commission’s Backgrounder on political advertising states that politicians or potential politicians can advertise whatever they like, provided they do not mislead or deceive us on how to cast a valid vote.

So, the situation is that Nissan, Volvo, Kelloggs or any other company advertising in Australia must remain within the bounds of truth, or someone will complain to the appropriate advertising standards agency. But if you are a politician, the content of your advertising is not regulated, provided you don’t suggest to people they ‘vote early and vote often’ or imply they don’t vote (because ‘it only encourages them’). Even worse, the politicians voted on this law, with an obvious double standard entrenched in its legislation.

Our politicians can tell us that they will ‘stop the boats’, ‘rectify a budget emergency’ (which has suddenly disappeared since 13 September) or anything else they like without any fear of exposure, legal consequences or, sadly, examination by a complacent media.

Why is it that society needs to be protected from ‘perceptions of dangerous driving’ when most drivers are well aware of the implications of the act while society is deemed to be quite able to determine the accuracy of arcane claims by politicians, such as ‘interest rates will always be lower’, without any requirement that the claim has any fact to it at all?

What is the real problem here:

  • that the Electoral Act doesn’t regulate the content of political advertising, or
  • that society, as demonstrated by a number of people in ‘The Toad Pond’, understands, accepts and is comfortable with the suggestion that politicians cannot be believed?
I’m not sure. The people are not ‘storming the barricades’ to eliminate such an obvious double standard.

What do you think?

The Political Sword is under new management

Two weeks ago TPS’s marvellous political blogger, Ad Astra, wrote Where to from here for The Political Sword?. The wise and compassionate and oh so politically astute Ad Astra advised it was time for him to retire. He also advised that the incredible Lyn, of Lyn’s Links on The Political Sword was retiring.

Oh no!

Was The Political Sword all over?!!

Well, it seems not.

Those of us who have loved, and found enormous solace and advice and companionship and a sense of family and support at TPS, thought ‘no!’ We need TPS. We need the Sword, even more than before the 2013 election. We need the Swordsters. We are not ready to let go!

So, a group, team, collective, board (finding a term to describe us is quite a challenge!) of some 10 Swordsters (regular readers and commenters) have formed the ‘TPS Team’ (with Ad and Lyn’s wonderful mentoring).

The brand new TPS Team is organising, behind the scenes, to continue TPS.

The Political Sword is moving from essentially a single-writer blog to one which can flourish as a forum for many writers.

Within a couple of days the team will post the first piece submitted as a conversation-starter from a writer.

We hope this is just the first of many offerings from many different voices.

Are you someone who believes that progressive political voices need to be heard?

Would you like to submit a piece, essentially from a progressive perspective, for consideration?

You are enthusiastically invited to do so!

But first, read through our brief guidelines for submitting an article. Then do be in touch with the TPS Team .

When Ad Astra wrote his final, and farewell piece, he thanked a great many people, including his loyal readers. There is one person remaining, however, who missed out on being thanked because … well, that’s Ad Astra, himself.

Ad, this is just for you.

And all your grateful readers are singing along.

Ad Astra, we applaud you. Thank you.

Where to from here for The Political Sword?

There are pivotal points in the lives of all of us, no less in the life of a political blog. The Political Sword has reached such a pivotal point.

Last Friday The Political Sword had its fifth birthday. The previous Saturday, Labor lost government. Among many who blog here, that was a great disappointment. The long road back to government for Labor lies ahead. They were pivotal points.

Moreover, key players in the life of this blog seek to take a different direction. Last week, Lyn, whose links have attracted thousands of regular visitors every day, decided to take a break. She has now decided to retire permanently from this very time-consuming and onerous task. For my part, I wish also to take a permanent break.

The Political Sword has been sustained over the years by the loyalty and contributions of a growing number of commenters, now over four hundred, and the visits of thousands of ‘lurkers’ who never comment but who visit regularly, thereby keeping the traffic through the site running at a consistently high level. They come to read Lyn’s Daily Links, the weekly pieces I write, the occasional guest authors’ offerings, and the many, many well-informed comments that run into the hundreds for every piece.

The constancy of the contribution of daily links, and of writing weekly pieces that often run to three thousand words with numerous references and links, has taken its toll on Lyn and me. We have spouses and families, and many other things we would like to do. Our commitment to The Political Sword has made other commitments and other pursuits almost impossible. We have done our bit to promote and support the values that progressives hold, but it’s time for a change. More of that later.

Some background may be of interest to those of you who have not been with us from the beginning.

During the final six years of my medical career I was editor of an Internet site that provided medical information to a worldwide audience of family doctors. That experience gave me insight into how such sites work, and the elements of HTML programming. In the year I retired from that, Kevin Rudd became Opposition Leader and the hope of Labor replacing the Howard Government became a reality. Being a Labor supporter, this excited my interest, and heightened my desire to write on matters political.

Even as far back as 2007 it was so obvious that journalists in the Fourth Estate were afflicted by groupthink, that this was the subject of my first blog piece: Is the media in Australia suffering from groupthink?. Having nowhere to publish it, I sent it to Possum Comitatus seeking advice as to how I might have it published. He kindly offered to post it as the first piece on his blogsite Possum Box, which he did on 14 June 2008. I will always be grateful to Possum for giving me a start in the Fifth Estate.

I was encouraged when the piece attracted over thirty comments, one of which was from janice, whom you all know is still a regular contributor to TPS. Subsequently, Possum published another three of my pieces, on Kevin Rudd and the media, on an emissions trading scheme, and on adversarial politics.

By then I was thinking that it would be appealing to have my own blogsite. My son-in-law, Web Monkey, set me up with this off-the-shelf freebie, BlogEngine.NET, which has served us very well since it began on 13 September 2008. He has maintained it ever since, updated it as each version arrived, transferred it to ‘the cloud’ (in Singapore), and developed TPS M@IL, a program that allows users to email politicians and disseminate pieces to selected parliamentarians. His contribution has been magnificent, for which I am deeply grateful.

The first post was an introduction to The Political Sword, and on the next day, 14 September, I posted In search of the political Holy Grail – the Rudd Government narrative, something that is still a mystery to many Fourth Estate journalists.

Since that modest beginning, which attracted just three comments (one was from janice) and almost no traffic, it has expanded to a busy site where each piece attracts from two to six hundred comments, and high ratings. Our stats show us that there are hundreds of regular commenters, and thousands of visitors who choose not to comment. The cumulative total of original pieces is 469, close to a million words; there have been over 61,000 comments; and over 2,000 raters.

In 2009 along came Lyn, at first commenting, then adding some links to her comments, then posting more and more links and posting them more often, until they morphed into her regular ‘Today’s Links’, archived regularly in Lyn’s Daily Links, and then, as they expanded, into Lyn’s Daily Links Archive, which dates back to early February 2011. It now contains many thousands of links of great historic interest. One look through the Archive demonstrates Lyn’s extraordinary and brilliant contribution to The Political Sword over the years, a contribution acknowledged over and again by those who comment here.

Lyn’s Daly Links Archive is invaluable. It will remain as a permanent monument to Lyn.

There have been other contributors of pieces on The Political Sword. Bushfire Bill, Hillbilly (Feral) Skeleton and Acerbic Conehead, who together contributed hundreds of pieces, John L, then, more recently, Victoria Rollison, Kaye Rollison, Marian Dalton and Jan Mahyuddin @j4gypsy. There have been poets too who have added verse to enrich the site with colour and movement: Talk Turkey, Patriciawa and Truth Seeker. They have all added immensely to the quality, reach and appeal of The Political Sword, for which I am hugely grateful, as are all the visitors here.

So here we are: Lyn has retired, and will concentrate on her family, her crafts and her hobbies; and I wish to give attention to family matters, complete the writing of my life story, do some more motoring across our vast land, which we enjoy, and taking some shipboard tours. To do this we both must take a new direction.

What then becomes of The Political Sword? It has become the home for many kindred souls, mainly Labor advocates, who enjoy the links, the pieces that are posted, and the discourse here among the participants. It has indeed become The Political Sword family. I have welcomed each new commenter, and have sought to respond to the comments as often as I was able. Insightful comments deserve a response, although responding is time-consuming and at times a demanding process.

It would be a great pity for The Political Sword to simply close down. Already some have expressed the hope that it will continue the fight for Labor values, oppose contrary values the new Government may seek to impose, and work towards the restoration of a Labor Government whose purpose is to ensure fairness and equity across the nation, to ensure prosperity for all, and to ensure infrastructure and services are in place to serve our economy, to serve our ageing population, and to care for all those in need of help.

The Political Sword needs to find a new home, where it will be fostered, supported, and expanded by a devoted and dedicated blog manager and enthusiastic writers, where it can promulgate its values and remain a resonant voice in the Fifth Estate, in which it has established a solid reputation and has garnered the respect of other sites, who include it on their blogrolls.

It has been suggested that others may wish to contribute pieces, which would certainly take the load from my shoulders. Anyone willing to do so would be welcome. My preference though is that someone, perhaps who has experience in managing a political blogsite, take over management of The Political Sword, write for it, and act as an editor of pieces submitted by others. It has a guaranteed audience, and an intelligent, well informed and articulate following, who habitually comment on the theme of each new piece, but who also pick up on what is happening in the political world and offer links to a wide variety of sources.

For some time now Janet has provided additional links and Twitterverse, and now Casablanca has taken up where Lyn left off to provide comprehensive collections of links. If they were willing to continue in this vein, the superb and unique link facility that Lyn established would continue to bring countless thousands to The Political Sword for information and succour.

Folks, this is an opportunity for you to offer your suggestions about how The Political Sword might continue, and indeed go from strength to strength. With the Coalition Government in place and already showing stark signs of its intent to tear down much of what Labor has built, signs that it will institute its own brand of neoliberal politics where trickle down economics are the norm, where the strong prevail and the weak falter and are left behind, the need for The Political Sword, and sites like it, is even more urgent.

Please post your suggestions and comments here, and if you wish to contact me directly with proposals or ideas, use the ‘Contact’ item on the top menu.

I will not respond immediately to posted comments, as I would prefer to see them in aggregate before doing so, but of course I will respond promptly to email messages.

Finally, on your behalf, I want to extend to you Lyn, our dear Lyn, the heartfelt thanks of all of us for your many years of dedicated and devoted work to The Political Sword in bringing us the world of political comment day after day, summarized to make it easy for us to assimilate, linked and referenced brilliantly. May your retirement a very happy one, and all you wish it to be.

To all who visit here, what do you think?

And the winner is: Rupert Murdoch

In a fair contest, Kevin Rudd and the Labor team would have been more than a match for Tony Abbott and the Coalition team. But it was not a fair contest. From the very beginning of the election campaign Rupert Murdoch marshalled his formidable forces in support of Abbott while he waged a barefaced propaganda war against Rudd and Labor. When before have we witnessed such an onslaught?

Conscripted by Murdoch from his position of editor-in-chief of The New York Post, ‘Field Marshall’ Col Allan, known inside News Corporation as ‘Col Pot’, a reference to Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge genocidal dictator, was instructed by Murdoch to "go hard on Rudd, start from Sunday, and don't back off".

Allan soon got to work. His message to Murdoch’s editors was straightforward but brutal: “You have been going hard on Labor but now, with Rudd's revival in the opinion polls, you have to go harder.” Indeed, they had been ‘going hard’ with vicious front pages since July: Captain Chaos, Wreck it Rudd, Hellhole Solution and Rudd’s Boat Show (referring to the PNG arrangement), Kev’s $733 million Bank Heist, Price of Labor, It’s a Ruddy Mess and Rudd’s Carr Wreck, when the Budget revision was released, and Island Hell referring to Manus Island.

The attack heightened with The Daily Telegraph’s: Finally, you now have the chance to…KICK THIS MOB OUT on Monday 5 August.

As Bruce Guthrie, who had a successful legal run in with Murdoch, so well recorded in his book Man Bites Murdoch, writes in his Brisbane Times article It's on: Rudd gets the Col shoulder as Murdoch telegraphs his punches: “By Thursday he and the Telegraph editor, Paul 'Boris' Whittaker, had taken another shot at Rudd, casting him, Anthony Albanese and Craig Thomson as ''Thommo's Heroes'', playing on the late 1960s sitcom Hogan's Heroes. By Friday, it was the turn of The Courier-Mail, the Brisbane tabloid turning Rudd and star candidate Peter Beattie into circus clowns.” Guthrie questioned Rudd’s wisdom in ‘taking on’ Murdoch: “What can he expect? First off, News does not play fair. And it's not always troubled by the truth. The PM will be misquoted and misrepresented, photographed - or Photoshopped - any notion of balance abandoned.

“My case
[his Supreme Court case against Murdoch for wrongful dismissal] taught me there are two kinds of truth in this world: what happened and what News Ltd says happened. And in Murdoch's world his version trumps everything - given his clout and reach in this country, that can be a scary realisation. Rudd should also know he is not only taking on the Telegraph - he's taking on the entire Murdoch empire.”

Referring to Rudd’s strong reaction to Murdoch’s mauling of him, Guthrie concluded: “I hope for his sake he has thought it through. Because he's about to get a working-over he'll long remember. I managed to hold on to my house; I'm not sure he'll hang on to The Lodge.”

Not satisfied that his readers had got his message, Murdoch’s Sunday Telegraph shouted Australia needs Tony, with the Abbott face filling the front page. Yesterday, it was YOUR TURN under a smirking Abbott with a wistful Rudd looking on.

Murdoch’s power is profound. A Get Up ad that criticized the anti-Labor coverage of Murdoch's newspapers was banned on commercial TV for fear of upsetting him. Channels Seven and Ten refused to air the ad, while Nine screened it over four days in Brisbane – then cancelled it after blaming a "coding error".

The Murdoch threat to Labor is not new. Over a year ago I wrote: Julia Gillard can defeat Tony Abbott in 2013. But how does she neutralize Rupert Murdoch?

When in April 2012 Murdoch tweeted: @rupertmurdoch 
Dramatic, slimy events in Australian politics. Country desperately needs election to get fresh start, 
28 Apr 12, no room for doubt remained – Murdoch wanted an election and expected that it would be the end of Julia Gillard and her Government.

The piece argued that while PM Gillard needed to defeat Tony Abbott and the Coalition at the next election, that was not her most forbidding task. Her most powerful enemy was Rupert Murdoch. It was he who needed to be countered for electoral success: “Our PM has two virulent enemies, and an unequal battle with them.”

The piece went on to document how Julia Gillard was superior to Tony Abbott on every parameter, but that might count for naught against Murdoch’s forces. It concluded: “We have all known about the influence he exerts via his 70% ownership of metropolitan newspapers, and through his TV outlets here in Australia, and in recent months we have seen his pernicious influence on politics in the UK and the depths to which he will stoop for a salacious story. I expect we might see something similar in the US.

“Rupert Murdoch has always sought to influence politics in every country where his vast empire has its tentacles. He has now stated overtly what we all knew, that he wants PM Gillard and her Government out and Tony Abbott and the Coalition in, and will use all his massive media power to achieve that end. He will not ease back, he will not take the pressure off, he will, through his media, one overseen by sycophantic hirelings, wage relentless war on our PM and her Government. It is to the mainstream media’s eternal shame that so many of the others have followed the Murdoch lead.

“Julia Gillard would trounce Tony Abbott were the election to be based on competence, performance and behaviour, and an accurately informed electorate. But we know that the Murdoch factor will ensure that not only is the electorate not informed about the Government’s achievements and its plans, but that it will be deliberately misinformed through distortions, omissions, and at times downright lies.

“Julia Gillard can defeat Tony Abbott, but can she counter the Murdoch menace?”

This piece, written over a year ago, was prescient. What was predicted then has unfolded before our very eyes over the last six months. Murdoch has won the election for Abbott.

The Sun's contribution to the unexpected Conservative victory in the 1992 general election in the UK evoked a Murdochesque front page headline: "It's The Sun Wot Won It", reflecting the influence of the Murdoch press over politicians and election results, something Murdoch relishes. We may see similar sentiments expressed here, although Murdoch conceded to the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press following the News International phone hacking scandal, that the headline was "tasteless and wrong".

No matter how tasteless, Rudd and Labor will be exhibited as a scalp on Murdoch’s well-endowed belt.

Of course, it would be unreasonable to suggest that Murdoch alone was responsible for Labor’s defeat. Abbott himself would want to take much of the credit, and his minders and supporters inside the Coalition and in the sycophantic media would want to take their share. They insist that Abbott has succeeded brilliantly by mesmerizing the electorate for so long with his simplistic, monotonously repeated three word slogans, by continually demonizing Labor and the PM, by being consistently ‘on message’, and by being supremely ‘disciplined’ (how the media loves that term), which is code for not disastrously putting his foot in his mouth. To the Murdoch media, all Abbott had to do was not stuff up and stay on message, and it would act as his megaphone. It mattered little that Abbott never acknowledged the global fiscal situation, nor detailed how the economy would need to adjust to the new reality of a slowing resource sector, nor how he planned to manage the transition to a different economy. His success was measured only by how well he avoided missteps.

Moreover, it would be foolish for Labor supporters to ignore the contribution Labor and its leaders have made to their defeat. Mistakes have been made, errors of judgement have occurred, some policies and plans have been faulty, some strategic moves inadvisable. Like all political parties managing a vast nation through turbulent global times, Labor has found judgement difficult. Hippocrates’ famous aphorism about the practice of medicine applies equally to politics: Life is short, the art is long, the occasion fleeting, experience fallacious, and judgment difficult.

Some Labor ideas quickly evaporated: the community forum for achieving consensus about global warming, and the East Timor ‘solution’ for offshore processing. Some well thought through moves such as the ETS were frustrated by Coalition and Greens’ opposition, but eventually it was Rudd’s timidity about calling a double dissolution election on an ETS that resulted in its suspension. The Malaysian arrangement never got to be tried because of a High Court ruling, and several sound measures were blocked by the Greens and the Coalition.

But for every unsuccessful move there were many more that were spectacularly successful: the stimulus response to the GFC that saved the nation from recession, contained unemployment and kept small businesses afloat; the Building the Education Revolution that had a 97% success rate, which provided much needed school infrastructure; and the Home Insulation Program that insulated a million roofs, reduced power costs to households, and lessened power usage and pollution, are three significant examples. Yet there was trenchant criticism of all three, from Abbott and the Coalition of course, but promulgated widely by the mainstream media, particularly the Murdoch media. Tame economists such as Henry Ergas and Michael Stutchbury demeaned the stimulus package up hill and down dale. Murdoch columnists, especially in The Australian, ran a weekly column attacking the BER, headlining every small problem in what was a highly successful program, as demonstrated in three reports by businessman Brad Orgill. The same happened with the HIP. Although there were administrative problems that allowed some shonky operators to enter the industry, what the Murdoch media highlighted was the ceiling fires, actually fewer than before the HIP began, and the sad deaths of four young workers, all shown to be the result of OH&S shortcomings occasioned by careless contractors.

The result was that by design, through Murdoch’s media, these successful programs were demonized and deprecated to such an extent that even now the mere mention of the BER immediately evokes the words ‘waste and mismanagement’, and mention of the HIP brings forth talk of ‘pink batts’, which is code for bungling inefficiency, carelessness, ceiling fires and deaths. Thus two highly successful programs that brought great benefit to our nation have been given a big black mark that has so negated all their benefits that virtually no credit has accrued to the Government. And all this has been the direct result of deliberately disingenuous and deceitful Coalition propaganda, amplified by the Murdoch media.

Murdoch’s campaign to unseat the Labor Government started long ago. He has been at it for years. His latest foray, spectacularly vicious though it is, is but the finale to a long-standing and persistent strategy of demonization and denigration.

Moreover, the spectacular achievements of the Gillard Government, such as the NDIS, the Better Schools Plan (Gonski), and the rollout of the largest infrastructure project in our history, the NBN, quite deliberately have received paltry recognition and credit from the Murdoch press. When it was not criticizing, it simply ignored and effectively hid these accomplishments.

Murdoch has supported the Abbott notion that we need to return to the halcyon days of the Howard era. Abbott gazes longingly in the rear-view mirror at a golden age of rivers of gold flowing into the Treasury, tax cuts and middle class welfare, and Murdoch stands beside him.

Of course, there is no gainsaying the damaging effects that the change of leader from Kevin Rudd to Julia Gillard in 2010, the prolonged sabotage of her prime ministership by Rudd and what Kerry-Anne Walsh terms ‘Team Rudd’, and the change back to him in 2013. Labor ministers readily conceded this last night and again this morning. Had there not been this destructive behaviour, Labor would have been miles ahead, and not struggling to maintain momentum and electoral support, as has been the case for the last three years. It has had to function with the brakes on, looking continually in the rear view mirror to watch for threats to its continued existence as a coherent political party. The damage that Team Rudd has done is inestimable, and in the light of the election results, spectacularly unjustifiable. Whether Julia Gillard and her ministers would have done any better than has Kevin Rudd we shall never know, but many will express learned opinions one way or the other, even if inauthentic, even if worthless.

We now enter into a dark and uncertain place. Murdoch will be certain to get what he wants from Abbott, who will be keen to repay him for his powerful and unremitting support. 'Murdochracy' will blossom. Obsequious Abbott will pay homage to him, and to Gina Rinehart and George Pell, who will continue to be his sponsors, but only so long as he does their bidding, as weaklings do.

Even before the election, Abbott was threatening his opponents, threatening a double dissolution election if they obstructed his carbon tax repeal. He insisted he would not tolerate opposition, although he had offered nothing but opposition and obstruction for the last three years. He reacted angrily to the Greens and Labor ministers insisting they would stick to their policy positions. He insisted that he would have a mandate to do as he pleased and that Labor would be acting suicidally to resist him. His bullyboy nature protruded through the thin veneer of reasonableness with which he has covered himself throughout the election campaign. This is a foretaste of what is to come. Be very afraid, the ugliness of the Abbott persona will soon be exposed for all to see.

And as this ugliness and the nastiness emerges like an erupting volcano, Abbott will take comfort in Murdoch’s protection, which he knows will always be there so long as he complies with Murdoch’s wishes. Abbott’s moves will be given sympathetic publicity in Murdoch’s outlets. He will be given a long, long honeymoon. Now that he has chosen a winner, Murdoch will make sure he protects his own reputation as a kingmaker. Moreover, he will always do what his commercial interests dictate – they always take precedent over his ideological position. In the case of Abbott and Murdoch, ideologies coincide. Murdoch will want Abbott, whose conservative pose he applauds, to look after his commercial wellbeing by protecting his Foxtel empire from any adverse effects of the NBN. In Murdoch's vicious attacks on Rudd: it's business, Paul Sheehan assesses this hazard as follows: “Foxtel has responded to this threat by launching its own content-on-demand product, FoxtelGo, and is launching an online-only version, FoxtelPlay. Foxtel's co-parent, News Corp, is engaging in a more structural response. It wants to kill the NBN threat at its ultimate source - Kevin Rudd.”

In his piece in Public Opinion, David Rowe quotes Barry Jones, who insists that the quality of political debate has become increasingly unsophisticated, appealing to the lowest common denominator of understanding. On the role of the media, Jones says: The Murdoch papers are no longer reporting the news, but shaping it. They no longer claim objectivity but have become players, powerful advocates on policy issues: hostile to the science of climate change, harsh on refugees, indifferent to the environment, protective of the mining industry, trashing the record of the 43rd parliament, and promoting a dichotomy of uncritical praise and contemptuous loathing. Does it affect outcomes? I am sure that it does, and obviously advertisers think so. The Coalition is still playing to fear and anxiety with its rhetoric about the Australian economy being a smoking ruin due to Labor’s ‘irresponsible’ fiscal policies.”

Writing in similar vein in Are You Scared Yet? The Mugging Of The Australian Electorate in The Global Mail, Mike Seccombe gives a fascinating account of the difference between progressive and conservative brains and thinking, that will repay the reader’s attention. He uses ‘mugged’ in the sense of being ‘robbed’. He writes: “Conservatives, for example, tend to have a stronger ‘startle reflex’ in response to sudden loud noise, than [progressives] do. They exhibit stronger sympathetic-nervous-system reactions to what they perceive as threatening images. They are more inclined to feel disgust and are generally more fearful.” Referring to the 2013 federal election, Seccombe asserts: “Tony Abbott, his political allies and media claque have managed to convince a significant portion of the electorate that it has been mugged. They have done this not over a few weeks in an election campaign, but over a period of years, and in defiance of the objective evidence. What’s more they have done it, in many ways, with the complicity of the Labor government, which has shown itself to be rather worse at running the debate than at running the country.”

Barrie Cassidy plays down the Murdoch effect: “The Daily Telegraph is trying to influence people who are already savvy and interested enough to buy a newspaper in a declining market. They don't fit the lemming mentality, by and large. So newspaper campaigns are limited in impact. The six o'clock news is still more influential, and the social media gets bigger by the day.” Some would wish Cassidy’s view to be correct, but most would see it as a future prediction rather that a contemporary reality. Murdoch has already done his damage for the 2013 election, damage that is now all too clear.

Victoria Rollison though has no doubts. In An Open Letter to Journalists at News Ltd she concludes: “It’s also important for you to know that we won’t forget what you’ve done. If your boss gets his way, and you do manage to deliver Australia the most conservative, austerity obsessed, downright mean and selfish government we’ve ever had, it’s very likely most of your readers, especially those in areas like western Sydney who’ve you’ve conned most successfully, will not be very impressed with you.”

Let’s give the last word on the Murdoch effect to Mike Carlton. In his article: Lies, damned lies and Australia's future in yesterday’s SMH, Carlton refers to the appearance of Fairfax chairman Roger Corbett on the ABC's Lateline on Tuesday. Carlton writes: "Here was a media mogul and Reserve Bank board member wickedly interfering in the election", and goes on to quote him: “…to be as strongly biased as News have been in the last few months, I do think does a great damage to the credibility of press, at just the time when the press needs to be highly respected as we go through this digital transition".

Carlton comments: “You betcha. It matters not that the opinion pages of The Australian, The Daily Telegraph and Brisbane's Courier-Mail are a bottomless swamp of right-wing idiocy. So be it. Rupert Murdoch and his myrmidons are entitled to their own opinions. But they are not entitled to their own facts. When you prostitute your news columns with cant, slant and bias, as News has done so relentlessly, it is a betrayal of your readers and a trampling of every ethical principle of journalism.

“This is not surprising from the global octopus that so disgraced itself in Britain, but it is a tragedy for Australia.”

While some will dispute the Murdoch effect on this election outcome, insisting that Abbott did it, or the Coalition did it, or Labor did it to itself, in my opinion the most credible explanation of the Coalition victory is that Murdoch did it. Abbott could not have succeeded on his own merits. He needed Murdoch to do it for him.

Although he might not want to say so in public, in private Murdoch will be saying to himself: ‘It's The Telegraph Wot Won It’. I believe that’s right.

So the winner is: Rupert Murdoch.

What do you think?

Say yes, yes, yes to Labor

Rusted-on Labor, Coalition and Greens supporters will vote as they always do. So this piece is directed towards the ‘undecideds’.

In this week’s Essential Research Poll they amounted to 18% who said: “It is quite possible I will change my mind as the campaign develops”, with another 4% responding: “Don’t know”. Since just 47% of those polled responded: “I will definitely not change my mind”, and another 30%: “It is very unlikely I will change my mind”, only three quarters of those polled have locked in, or almost locked in, their voting intention. With nearly a quarter not so committed, the election really depends on them. Coupled with Essential’s TPP of 50/50, there is plenty of scope for the election to go either way, depending on how the non-committed 22% vote.

Before reflecting on which party and which leader is best equipped to guide the nation through the next three years, a number of myths need to be exploded. These myths have been perpetuated over the last three years to such an extent that they have become virtual folklore, some of it ‘verified’ by opinion polls, where, for example, despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary, those polled consistently rate the Coalition as the best managers of the economy.

So let’s examine some of these myths, myths that need to be erased if the undecideds are to have a balanced view of the options.

MYTH: The Coalition is the best manager of the economy
This is what Stephen Koukoulas wrote in The Drum at the end of last year: “The Liberal Party and many conservative commentators suggest that the size of government in Australia under the current Labor Government is too big. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has said the current government "is addicted to taxes" and that it "is spending like a drunken sailor… mortgaging our future". In a similar vein, shadow treasurer Joe Hockey says: "Labor has shown it is incapable of cutting spending”. Either these comments are deliberate mistruths or reflect the lack of understanding of budget policy from people who, within a year, could well be prime minister and treasurer.

“The facts of the budget show that the current government's budgetary footprint on the economy is small, running at the lowest level in 35 years. The current small government is made up of both low tax receipts and record cuts in government spending.”

The Kouk concludes: “In what should be an embarrassing fact for Mr Hockey, 2012-13 will see real government spending fall 4.4 per cent, the biggest cut ever recorded. This cut will see the government spending to GDP ratio fall to 23.8 per cent, having previously been ramped up to successfully counter the shock from the global financial crisis. This level of spending is 0.4 per cent of GDP below the average government spending level of the Howard government. In today's dollar terms, the 0.4 per cent of GDP amounts to around $6 billion.

“All of this suggests that the current government and the Labor Party more generally are low taxing and the only side of politics willing to cut spending when required.”

Add to that assessment the fact that during the first mining boom when there was rivers of gold flowing into the Treasury, instead of saving this ‘for a rainy day’, John Howard and Peter Costello chose to reduce tax and give overly generous middle class welfare handouts, all to attract votes, thereby creating a now unsustainable structural deficit in the budget that will bedevil governments and treasurers until they have the courage to tell the people that the age of such entitlements is over, are increasingly unaffordable, and need to be discontinued. Joe Hockey knows this, but his leader won’t have a bar of it, as it would lose him votes. The Howard government also neglected infrastructure, creating a structural deficit that will consume many billions in the years ahead.

The evidence points decisively to the incontrovertible fact that during the Howard/Costello years the Coalition was not the great economic manager it is pumped up to have been, and that Labor has been a superior manager of the economy, so much so that it has a triple A rating from all three rating agencies for the first time in its history, is regarded as the best managed economy in the developed world, remains the envy of other countries, and attracts the admiration of economists world wide.

The continual denigration of Labor and its financial management, and the persistent talking down of the economy by the Coalition and sycophantic journalists, has led voters to really believe the myth that Labor is a poor economic manager, and the Coalition is better. Yet myth is it. Erase it from memory. Indeed, economic management is one of Labor’s very strong points.

MYTH: Labor did not save Australia from the global financial crisis
The Coalition, its finance spokesmen, and Coalition-oriented journalists insist that it was the sound state of the economy gifted to Labor by the Howard/Costello Government, the burgeoning Chinese economy, the minerals boom, and RBA monetary policy that saved us from the GFC. Some scarcely acknowledge that there was a GFC at all. “What crisis?” said Joe Hockey. They still refuse to accept the continuing and devastating fallout from the GFC all across the globe.

This is the assessment of Politifact. Richard Holden writes: “So, was the Rudd Government brilliant, lucky, or reckless?

“My reading is: brilliant. For sure, they had a lot of other factors supporting the economy that many other countries did not have: a central bank with the decisiveness, and room, to slash interest rates; a major trading partner (i.e. China) enacting a massive stimulus of their own; and a very flexible exchange rate. They also arguably "played it safe" by following advice from Treasury and the International Monetary Fund.

“But two things merit the term "brilliant". One: the resolve to use overwhelming fiscal force, particularly in the face of political opposition; and two: the sophistication to understand the importance of shoring-up the banking system through deposit guarantees (announced in October, 2008).

“Together these gave Australians confidence that we would weather the crisis. That confidence prevented the kind of expectations death spiral from which the US is still battling to recover.

“Franklin Roosevelt was right. In times like 2008 "the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself". Oh, and a government that doesn’t realize that stimulus only works if it’s big, bold and credible.”

Labor did save us from the dire affects of the GFC. To say otherwise is a myth, one to be discarded.

MYTH: The cost of living has risen out of control under Labor
This is Stephen Koukoulas’ assessment of this myth: “To summarise, the average household is taking home $17,250 a year more in after tax income than in late 2007, paying $6,100 a year less in mortgage repayments and their cost of living has risen by $9,240. Netting this out means a gain of over $14,000 a year. For this average household and frankly millions like them, the cost of living issue is a complete furphy, a lie and a distortion that sounds appealing but is baseless in fact.

“It is odd that so few many people realise or care to acknowledge just how well off they are.”

Read too what Tom Allard has to say in Life is much better under Labor after all, says study.

Another myth exploded. Forget it.

MYTH: There has been a wage blowout under Labor
Writing in The Guardian, Greg Jericho says: “…two weeks’ ago the latest Wage Price Index was released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics; it showed that the annual increase in wages is a mere 3% – the lowest such increase, outside the period of the global financial crisis, for the past 10 years.” Later he writes: “After the GFC, and the introduction of the Fair Work Act, real wages recovered to the pre-GFC average growth of about 1%. But…they have now fallen to 0.4% annual growth.”

Later, referring to the assessment of the RBA, Jericho writes: “…it noted, “Unit labour costs ... declined over the year, with the sharp slowing in the growth of average earnings more than offsetting an easing in labour productivity growth from its recent fast pace.”

Another myth debunked. It is nothing more than a furphy perpetuated by Coalition IR spokesman Eric Abetz to support his push for Abbott’s changes to Fair Work Australia to ‘return IR to the sensible centre’.

MYTH: Cutting corporate taxes will boost real wage growth
The Coalition’s ‘Our Plan’ states: “By cutting corporate taxes we…boost real wage growth”. This was subject to examination by The Australian Institute’s Facts Fight Back. The finding: There is serious doubt that the academic and theoretical work underpinning the claim is valid in the Australian context and the available evidence does not support the claim.

Another myth down the drain. Ignore it.

MYTH: Labor has done nothing for small and medium business enteprises
This myth is common among business lobbies. Let’s read what Rob Burgess says in Business Spectator in Labor's SME 'failure' is a myth: “It’s been worrying…to see people who should know better asserting that Labor has done absolutely nothing for small business, unlike the angelic Coalition governments of John Howard. That’s a staggering position to take given that the Abbott-led Coalition voted for round one of the $10.8 billion Rudd stimulus package in 2008 – a cash splash and infrastructure splurge that kept retailers, sub-contractors and many other SME sectors alive as the first wave of GFC pain hit the nation. The Coalition did not vote for the second round of stimulus in 2009. But that $42 billion adrenalin shot to the economy, besides $950 cheques to most households, included ‘hardship bonuses’ of $950 to 21,000 farmers and farm-dependent small businesses, and $2.7 billion in additional investment tax breaks for SMEs.

“Small businesses were also the main beneficiaries of the ‘school halls’ and ‘pink batts’ schemes. Both have been attacked as administrative stuff-ups… The overspend on school halls became the main criticism of that scheme. Some cost a lot more than market value, but overall the final cost blowout was about 14 per cent.

“The logic of slamming that as one of the biggest wastes of government money ever is utterly insupportable… It prevented the financial collapse of thousands of small businesses and individual contractors and that was its primary purpose…”

Burgess concludes: “…failing to recognise the good Labor did in the SME space in the past six years is partisan revisionism that really helps no one.”

So it’s a myth that Labor has done nothing for SMEs. Indeed, some of the existing benefits are those the Coalition is now threatening to remove: instant asset tax write-offs and loss carry-backs.

MYTH: Labor’s NBN will cost over $90 billion
Peter Martin quotes PolitiFact that finds Turnbull's claim that Labor's NBN would eventually cost $94 billion possible but unverifiable. It rates it "half true".

Turnbull continually quotes the $94 billion figure and compares it with his estimated cost of his NBN-Lite. The estimated cost of Labor’s NBN was $37.4 billion, (but it may blow out to $44.1 billion,) but that is not a bottom line figure in the Federal Budget. It is an investment that will achieve an estimated 7% ROI when fully deployed. It is fiscally inept to treat it as an expense. The only ongoing expense to the budget is interest on money borrowed to fund the NBN rollout. Turnbull knows this very well, but still perpetuates his myths about the NBN.

It is a unverifiable myth that Labor’s NBN will cost $94 billion, three times as much as the Coalition’s NBN-Lite.

MYTH: The Coalition’s NBN will be cheaper, roll out sooner and be more affordable
Malcolm Turnbull states the cost of his NBN-Lite FTTN will be $29.5 billion. In response, Stevej on NBN quotes Professor Reg Coutts, a member of a seven member Expert Panel: “Essentially to go down the FTTN road would mean something in the order of greater than 50 per cent of the capital being put into digital cabinets in the suburbs…They then become an obstacle to the final solution… fibre-to-the-premise. Fibre-to-the-node is not a stepping stone to fibre-to-the-premise.” Stevej goes on: “…what was a really bad, uneconomic idea in January 2009 is now a worse idea.” He concludes: “If Turnbull wins office, we're going to hear a lot about Labor’s "costs", "waste" and "poor economic management". We won't hear the truth from him that he's planned to land the Australian taxpayer with a $30 billion write-off, courtesy of his ill-advised and wasteful FTTN.” This weekend in Despite News Ltd, Turnbull WILL kill NBN, if he wants Stevej says: “If Turnbull was really committed to building an NBN, why has he crafted a "plan" that is so complex and so riddled with omissions that the Parliamentary Budget Office cannot cost it?...Turnbull is either incompetent, which I don't believe, or working very hard to hide some very unpalatable facts."

In this weekend’s The Conversation Rod Tucker writes: “Will the Coalition’s NBN provide value for money? Compared with Labor’s FTTP NBN, which will be easily upgradeable to ultra-broadband capacity when new applications come on line, the Coalition’s FTTN NBN is a short-term, limited-bandwidth solution. At a whopping two-thirds of the cost of the vastly superior FTTP NBN, the Coalition’s NBN stacks up as waste of money.”

Forget the myth that the Coalition’s NBN-Lite FTTN is a cheaper and better option than Labor’s NBN FTTP. It isn’t, and Turnbull knows it.

The myths listed above are related to the economy and the NBN, but to illustrate that they extend beyond these areas, try this one:

MYTH: Immunization rates have fallen under Labor
The ABC’s Fact Check says this: “Given the overall vaccination rates across all three age groups over the period of the Labor governments has either remained stable or increased, Mr Abbott's claim that "this Government (has) presided over a reduction in vaccination rates" is wrong.

Another myth exploded.

There are many, many more, but to include them all would take the whole piece. I trust there are sufficient though to convince undecided voters that to make a considered choice of which party to support, these myths need to be discarded, and the mind cleansed of their pernicious influence. Indeed, in exploding these myths, Labor’s strengths are exposed for all to see.

Now let’s look at why undecideds should say yes, yes, yes to Labor.

Space dictates that just a handful of reasons be used to illustrate why.

Economic management
What has been written above suffices to support the quality of Labor’s economic management. Its brilliant carriage of the Australian economy through the GFC and to this day, its moderation of the cost of living, its achievement of low inflation and interest rates, its control of wage rises, its contribution to productivity, and its strong support for small and medium business stamp Labor as a sound economic manager, one that could be safely entrusted to manage it well in the decade ahead.

In contrast, the Coalition’s record of achievement pales into insignificance, is built on a belief in free markets and light regulation, and on cost cutting and austerity, but is redolent with deceit, another piece of which we saw publicized this week: the Liberal’s ‘Cost of Labor Calculator’. Greg Jericho delightfully debunks this downloadable app in an article in The Guardian. He concludes: “Dodgy cost calculators make for a great toy when you are trying to win an election, but as long as political parties treat voters like idiots and refuse to give them the full picture on such issues, we will forever be denied the chance of a proper debate. And while complaining about cost of living sounds like a great idea when you are in opposition, shifty claims about reducing the cost of living inevitably come back to bite you when in government.” Is it any wonder there is an insistent clamour for the Coalition to release its costings immediately?

Labor has the runs on the board for economic management. The Coalition, with its history of profligate spending, the unnecessary extension of middle class welfare, and its intention to slash and burn, doesn’t.

National Broadband Network
The clearly superior NBN offered by Labor trumps the inefficient, costly and inadequate NBN-Lite of the Coalition.

Labor’s NBN holds great promise for commerce, industry, science, agribusiness, service industries, education, health, and aged and disability care, as well as having enormous potential in the field of telecommunications. Its contribution to competitiveness will be massive. It will enable work from home and thereby reduce commuter traffic and pollution. Australia deserves the best to compete in a global economy. And in the fullness of time, the NBN will turn a profit, and repay the investment in it.

Labor’s NBN is what this nation needs.

The ground breaking reforms inherent in Labor’s Better Schools Plan (Gonski) will revolutionize school funding, cater for the disadvantaged, and enhance fairness in schooling. Added to a national curriculum, the MySchool website, NAPLAN, enhanced teacher education, more teachers, and incentives for better teachers, the foundations of a strong and equitable system of schooling are already in place. Labor will retain and improve it. Despite being on 'a unity ticket' with Labor, the Coalition does not show the same determination. It does not believe the funding system is broken, has committed to fund only the first four years, not the expensive years five and six, and wants to encourage public schools to become independent.

Labor has increased university funding, has created 190,000 new higher education places and 50,000 apprenticeships and training places, and will spend $14.3 billion in skills and training over the next four years.

Education has been a signature policy area for Labor. It has done more in its two terms than the previous government ever did.

From the outset, Labor has focussed on improving the health care system. It has moved to better integrate the contributions of State and Federal governments, often against resistance. Its efforts have been directed to enhancing community-based primary care and prevention through Medicare Locals and GP Superclinics, cancer care through many new centres, aged and dementia care, disability care through the groundbreaking NDIS, mental health care, and dental care. The NBN is seen as a crucial tool in home monitoring to keep the aged and disabled at home, to enable remote consultations, and to extend medical technology by bringing city expertise to regional and remote areas.

Health is another signature policy area of Labor. The originator of Medicare and the NDIS, it has always been superior to the Coalition, and will do even more in the future.

Industrial Relations
This is yet another signature policy area for Labor. It was responsible for the changes to WorkChoices that removed its punitive aspects. It has always been a champion of workers. It remains the defender of fairness in the workplace that would be threatened by an Abbott government, one hell bent on complying with business demands for ‘more flexibility’ and a ‘move of the IR pendulum to the sensible centre’.

Labor was the first to introduce an affordable paid parental leave scheme, now threatened by Abbott’s unaffordable and inequitable PPL, being marketed as a workplace entitlement like annual leave.

IR is Labor’s long suit; it is the Coalition’s bête noir.

Labor has embarked on the largest infrastructure project in Australia’s history – its NBN. Bigger even than the Snowy Mountains Scheme, it promises to elevate Australia into the top echelon in the communications world, thereby ensuring international competitiveness as it facilitates manufacturing, agriculture, service industries, tourism, education and health care.

Labor has made record spending on transport infrastructure in its six-year term. It favours, and has costed the Melbourne-Brisbane fast rail project and intends to proceed. Tony Abbott wants to be the ‘infrastructure prime minister’, but is stuck on roads, and against urban rail. He would have a lot of catching up to do.

Labor has a fine track record of infrastructure development, and would continue in this vein. The Coalition would be in catch-up mode.

Labor has been supportive of the struggling car industry, recognizing that beyond the 50,000 direct car-building jobs, there are 200,000 jobs supporting the industry. The Coalition is indifferent, and disinclined to offer support, operating from a ‘survival of the fittest’ mindset.

Ship-building is set for a boost if Labor is re-elected with the building of more Navy frigates in Melbourne. The possibility of moving Navy assets from Garden Island to Queensland opens up new opportunities for manufacturing.

Labor is manufacturing’s best bet. It plans to open up new industries as older ones fade during the transition that is in train. The Coalition never mentions the needed transition.

This is a most vexed area. On the positive side, Labor proposes to increase the humanitarian intake eventually to 27,000. The Coalition intends to curtail it. Labor has taken many steps against people smugglers, including the recent arrests in Australia. The Coalition’s policies become more and more retaliatory by the day, this week scrapping free legal services for asylum seekers.

Labor’s track record is not good, but is less punitive than the Coalition’s.

Climate change and the environment
Labor has a price on carbon that will evolve to an emissions trading scheme with worldwide trading in mid-2014. The Coalition does not take global warming seriously. It has a discredited Direct Action Plan that analysts Reputex say will have a $35 billion cost blowout in achieving its emissions reduction target!

So much for the ridiculous 15,000 strong Green Army, cleaning up waterways and planting 20 million trees in countless hectares of semi-arable land!

Labor’s approach to global warming is based on science, is feasible, and is already reducing our emissions and power usage. It encourages the development of renewables. The Coalition’s approach is virtually the reverse and will be ineffectual. The choice between them is easy and logical.

Labor’s insistence on fairness, equity, and concern for the disadvantaged, permeates all its policies. It is the party that supports the less well off, the disadvantaged and the disabled, those that need a hand. It seeks to close the gap between the richest and the poorest. The Coalition is less concerned about those at the bottom of the pile, supports those at the top, and believes the ‘trickle down’ theory of economics works, which study after study shows is not the case. The contrast between the ideologies of the two parties is stark and telling.

Any undecided that seeks to live in a fair and equitable society has no choice other than Labor.

This piece is already long enough. I trust that having exploded the many myths that have been spread about Labor, myths that turn out to be strengths, and having shown how much Labor has done in the last six years, more than any prior government, most of it the excellent work of Julia Gillard, work that Kevin Rudd now seeks to carry on, undecideds will be convinced that Labor is the most obvious choice for the next three years, and that the Coalition offers far less.

The Economist agrees: “The choice between a man with a defective manifesto and one with a defective personality is not appealing – but Mr Rudd gets our vote, largely because of Labor’s decent record. With deficits approaching, his numbers look more likely to add up than Mr Abbott’s.”

Labor has had its upheavals and its leadership unrest, but on sheer performance, on its forward-looking strategy for this nation, despite what most of the media says to the contrary, it is a long way ahead of the Coalition.

Labor has the long term vision and the coherent plans for the period of transition ahead and for the decades ahead; the Coalition does not.

So undecideds, say yes, yes, yes to Labor.

Should you decide to ‘Disseminate this post’, it will be emailed to: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Julie Bishop, Chris Bowen, David Bradbury, George Brandis, Tony Burke, Mark Butler, Bob Carr, Jason Clare, Mark Dreyfus, Craig Emerson, Joel Fitzgibbon, Julia Gillard, Joe Hockey, Greg Hunt, Ed Husic, Barnaby Joyce, Bob Katter, Andrew Leigh, Jenny Macklin, Richard Marles, Tanya Plibersek, Christopher Pyne, Andrew Robb, Kevin Rudd, Bill Shorten, Tony Smith, Wayne Swan, Warren Truss, Malcolm Turnbull, Andrew Wilkie, Penny Wong and Nick Xenophon.

Say no, no, no to Tony Abbott

Rupert Murdoch wants him. Gina Rinehart wants him. The miners want him. Big business wants him. Most of the media want him. But does the public want him? By September 8 we will know if the voters really did want him, whether they have been persuaded by the continual media promotion of Tony Abbott and his Coalition, and the incessant denigration of Kevin Rudd and Labor.

Abbott supporters insist that he is the one this country needs as its leader for the next three years.

But how many will reflect on what it will mean to this nation to have Tony Abbott, whom we now know so well, as its Prime Minister?

It takes little serious reflection to conclude that this nation does not deserve to have Abbott inflicted on it. Let me elaborate on why we ought to say no, no, no to Tony Abbott.

Contemplate an Abbott prime ministership, an Abbott government.

In my opinion, we can confidently expect Abbott to exhibit seemingly conflicting attributes: vengefulness and weakness.

The vengeful Abbott

Although this 55-year-old has been telling us recently that he 'has grown, developed and matured' since those long past days when he embraced quite different policies and exhibited very different attitudes and behaviour, how convinced are you? The old saying about the leopard’s spots applies.

Is this man, who in student days resented losing, any different now? Is this the man who kicked in a glass door when he narrowly lost in a University Senate election? Is this the man who punched the wall close to Barbara Ramjan when he lost an SRC election to her? It was an event he couldn’t at first ‘remember’, and then said ‘it never happened’, despite witnesses to the contrary. But we all know Abbott is a self-confessed liar. Is this the man who subsequently called Ramjan ‘chair-thing’ during her subsequent term rather than her preferred title ‘chair person’?  Is this the man who abused Nicola Roxon and insulted the dying Bernie Banton?

Is this the man who as recently as last week in the leaders’ debate asked about Rudd: “Does this guy ever shut up?” It was a small infraction, of course grasped eagerly by the media, but it portrayed brittleness, it signalled thinly disguised aggression lurking just under the surface, aggression that could erupt with little provocation, as it did during university days. Hardly a desirable attribute in a national leader who would need to liaise with world leaders! Greg Jericho says this: “This could be Abbott’s version of the Latham handshake, because it feeds into the perception that already exists that Abbott is a bit of a brute – someone who is liable to snap if pushed a bit too hard." Happy Antipodean was blunter: “But every now and then - like last night - Abbott slips up and lowers the tone of social discourse to a level with which he – a father of three daughters! – is happiest with the after-game fly-off-the-rails barbarism of the teenage schoolboy. He's a disgrace to Australia.” Abbott’s recent sexist remarks about some of his candidates for election fit with this image. Read YaThink’s satirical take on his remarks.

Is this the man who from the moment Julia Gillard won the support of a majority of Independents and formed Government in 2010, labeled her as an illegitimate prime minister and her Government illegitimate? Is this the man who used over sixty motions to suspend standing orders to delegitimize her, the man who demonized her daily with vile appellations: ‘liar’, ‘incompetent’, ‘worst prime minister leading the worst government in Australian political history’, who sneered at her at every opportunity despite her record legislative achievements?

Abbott’s approach to opposition has been consistently denigratory and viciously revengeful. Abbott cannot tolerate being a loser. Losing brings out the vengeful side of his nature, the nastiest aspects of his behaviour.

Look at his opposition to Labor bills. He has opposed measures that he has supported in the past (an ETS is one example), simply to enjoy the satisfaction opposition afforded. He is a disciple of Randolph Churchill, and slavishly follows his dictum: “Oppositions should oppose everything, suggest nothing, and turf the government out”.

We would expect him to enjoy wreaking vengeance by repealing the carbon tax, the mining tax, and other Labor bills. Smashing what Labor has done is his pugilistic intent; demolition gives him satisfaction.

If he were to win, the bigger the majority the more intense and personal his vengeance would be. Voters need to know that vengeance is in his DNA. It would override any tendency to munificence that might emerge after a substantial victory. Remember his instruction to Malcolm Turnbull: “demolish the NBN”, an instruction Turnbull found a way to partly ignore. Demolition is Abbott’s preference.

Let’s look at some pretty obvious changes we could expect if Abbott prevails. Preston Towers has a nice account at AUSVOTES2013.

Tax changes
If he were to get a majority in both houses, we should expect not only the two major taxes to go, but also the carbon tax to be replaced by the underfunded, derisory Direct Action Plan, a plan way outside the carbon market system. There would also be a reversal of means testing of the private health insurance rebate, despite the Coalition agreeing to it earlier this year. Abandoned would be the recently mooted changes in the Fringe Benefits Tax in salary packages that enable the claiming of car expenses even when not used for business. Abbott would continue the rorting by the recipients, at taxpayers’ expense.

Industrial Relations
We would expect a revisiting of industrial relations despite Abbott’s ‘dead, buried and cremated’ reassurance, repeated again in the latest debate between the leaders. The pressure that commerce and industry is placing on Abbott would prove irresistible. Independent Australia sets out Abbott’s IR agenda in detail. Already he is talking about ‘flexible workplace reform’, and ‘moving the pendulum closer to the sensible middle’, which is code for the reintroduction of elements of WorkChoices by whatever more benign name Abbott invents. He would reintroduce the Australian Building and Construction Commission with all its anti-union provisions. He would introduce union-bashing legislation to penalize dishonest union officials. In the event of his not having control of the Senate, some pay-offs might have to be made to the lesser parties and independents to implement his IR changes, which might include, for example, compromises to pro-lifer DLP John Madigan over the abortion issue.

Attacks on school funding
Although Abbott encouraged the Premiers to reject the Gonski reforms of school funding, when it became apparent that the people really did want the School Improvement Program implemented, and as more and more Premiers came on board, Abbott realized that to oppose it was such a vote loser that he endorsed it, claiming that he and Kevin Rudd were then on ‘a unity ticket’. Of course he has endorsed funding for only the first four years, whereas it is years five and six that are the most expensive. After all the talk of the program being a ‘Conski’, after Christopher Pyne’s insistence that the school funding system was not broken, after Abbott himself saying that if there was any funding inequity, it was the private schools that were missing out, we would expect Gonski to be revisited, subjected to yet another inquiry, and then watered down to reduce federal government support for public schools, thereby perpetuating the existing inequity. Abbott is even talking about encouraging public schools to become independent. Of course this would partly let him off the funding hook and satisfy his free market, user-pays ideology.

At the level of the family he has already announced the repeal of the ‘school kids bonus’, a move that would have its greatest effect on the poor in our community. He says he would use the money to fund in part his lavish PPL, one that so disproportionately favours the well off.

Attacks on the health system
We would expect an attack on elements of the health care system with GP super clinics and Medicare Locals his targets. We would wait with trepidation to see how he manages the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, and in particular drugs that are used to assist abortion. And his push against the NBN would be reflected in the health sector too, as some of the planned innovations, such as home monitoring, would be curtailed or rendered impossible.

On nurses and aged care workers, Abbott wants to support them by ‘reducing red tape’, and ‘paperwork’. Sounds great, doesn’t it. But where does the reducing begin? As Clarencegirl asks: “Would it be daily observation charts, case notes, individual treatment plans, outcomes of multidisciplinary case management conferences, filling in accident/incident registers, or more simple tasks like placing patients/residents on lists for podiatry treatment and filling in weekly menus for those who can no longer do such tasks for themselves? Or would it be paperwork proving staffing levels, that all staff were suitably qualified for the positions they hold and that emergency medical equipment is tested/serviced regularly?”

All of these moves would be characterized as necessary cost-saving exercises to repair ‘the desperately bad financial situation Labor bequeathed the Coalition’.

Global warming
Lurking beneath an exterior that now acknowledges the reality of global warming, and the possibility that human activity contributes to it, is a denier. Why else would Abbott propose a scheme such as his Direct Action Plan? Malcolm Turnbull sees it as a bogus scheme that could easily be ditched when it all becomes too difficult, too costly, too logistically impossible, and ineffectual in lowering pollution to boot, as most economists and environmentalists predict. Abbott would cite the budget situation as his excuse for not proceeding, but the real reason would be that he doesn’t believe global warming is worth bothering about. After all, ‘it was hotter in Jesus’ time’. He keeps insisting, as does the sycophantic Greg Hunt, that there is no move to carbon trading elsewhere, which there is, and that the US is adopting ‘direct action’, which it isn’t. Being into short-termism, Abbott would let the planet look after itself, while he goes about doing the easier things, and Hunt would go on spinning a story that does not coincide with his own beliefs. As Tristan Edis writes: “Last week the Climate Institute called Hunt’s bluff, releasing a study examining the economics of Hunt’s Direct Action fund. In spite of its generous assumptions in Hunt’s favour, the study concluded Direct Action was underfunded by at least $4 billion to achieve the minimum Coalition emission reduction target.”

One area in which Malcolm Turnbull excels is obfuscation. He is not only incapable of making complex telecommunications issues simple enough for the public to comprehend, he is even less capable when he is trying to pull the wool over the public’s eyes. When his heart is not in it, he stammers and stumbles and becomes incomprehensible. Again and again he has tried to represent his NBN-Lite as superior on the grounds that it would cost less and would roll out faster. But that advantage comes at the expense of quality. The Coalition scheme would give Australia a second rate NBN, which would leave business and agriculture less competitive internationally, and would make home health care, aged care and remote consultations much more difficult, if not impossible. But both Turnbull and Abbott insist that it would be ‘good enough’ for most users, and that the aging copper he would use for the last kilometre is capable of the speeds he is promising, which it isn’t. If it’s OK for Abbott’s daughters to download movies, and for him to send emails, I suppose that would have to do!

Talking about a Google+hangout in which Turnbull participated last week, Sortius is a Geek reports that Turnbull’s “…answers were dripped in the same arrogant dismissive tone that we’ve become accustomed to when Turnbull is interviewed or debated.” And “This was a deliberate attempt to derail any concerns over his plan being short sighted, and essentially a waste of money.”

The Coalition’s NBN-Lite costings are shrouded in mystery. Renai LeMay reported this week: “Delimiter requested a formal position from Turnbull’s spokesperson last week about whether the Shadow Communications Minister would submit the Coalition’s NBN policy to the Treasury, but has not yet received a direct answer on the issue.”

For an excellent appraisal of Labor’s NBN read Michael Taylor’s post on The Australian Independent Media Network, which concludes: “The future is an exciting place and the technological possibilities seem endless. But life and society will increasingly revolve around fast, ubiquitous, and always-on network connectivity. Labor’s NBN sets Australia up to be a part of this, and potentially to be a leading developer of the technologies that will shape the lives of the next generations.” Abbott cannot stomach Labor’s plan being the best.

After his initial instruction to Turnbull to ‘demolish the NBN’, Abbott would want to get as close as he could to that destructive approach with his NBN-Lite. And he certainly wouldn’t want to upset his idol, Rupert Murdoch. Be certain that he would move his NBN-Lite as close as he could to Murdoch’s requirements.

Asylum seeker policy
Little needs to said about this, except that Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison would drag the Coalition even deeper into the morass in which this issue wallows. They would seek to look more aggressive than the Government, would add more and more disincentives to their already punitive policy, as we have seen this week, and the dog whistling would heighten.

Just when it seemed they couldn’t possibly become more hairy-chested, they are now planning to spend millions ‘buying back the fishing boats’, presumably outbidding the people smugglers. As there are estimated to be three quarters of a million fishing boats in Indonesia, Morrison would be pretty busy, and would needs lots of money. If he were to buy them all, who would do the fishing? Crazy. Greg Jericho describes just how crazy.

Fiscal responsibility
Notwithstanding all the Coalition hype about Government debt and deficit, and how fiscal management would be so much better under the Coalition, the approach of Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey, Andrew Robb and Mathias Cormann to fiscal responsibility gives voters no confidence that the Coalition could and would do what it says it will. They often misrepresent the facts, distort the evidence, and cherry pick the data to push their point of view, and so far we have seen little of their policy costings, which they will hide until the last week of the election, when thorough critique will be impossible. They plan simply to bluff their way through. At his campaign launch today, Abbott set out an extended timeframe for a $4 billion surplus: the end of his first term! And a budget surplus of one per cent of GDP a decade hence! He’s retreating fast.

Ross Gittins insists that the Coalition has an obligation to show how it will pay for its election promises. He goes on to outline “the unworthy reasons for avoiding any firm commitment on when an Abbott government would get the budget back to surplus. I can think of three. Because it's a safe bet the Coalition parties intend to put their debt-and-deficit rhetoric on the back burner as soon as they're back in power and the fear campaign has served its purpose. Because, even in government, Tony Abbott is likely to prove an incorrigible populist with little interest in or sympathy for the precepts of rational economics. As is clear from the way he keeps departing from the agreed line in this campaign, Hockey, Arthur Sinodinos and Malcolm Turnbull would have an unending struggle trying to keep the boss up to the mark." Gittins concludes: “…because an Abbott government would have handicapped itself so badly on the tax side of the budget that fiscal responsibility would require a degree of continuing restraint on the spending side of which no flesh-and-blood government is capable.”

If an example of this is needed, just think about the fiscal contortions that have beset the funding of Abbott’s ‘signature policy’, his Paid Parental Leave scheme, which economists and many in his party, now including Nick Minchin, believe is not capable of being responsibly implemented.

We could expect no fiscal magic from Abbott, Hockey, and Co, and certainly no move that would up the ante on the wealthy. In contrast, we can see already their preparedness to move against the underprivileged, the workers, and the indigent. They have said they would kill the School Kids Bonus and the low income tax offset, reduce the tax free ceiling thereby disadvantaging the poorest, reverse the changes to the means tested private health insurance rebate, which would advantage the wealthy, and defer for two years the moving of superannuation from nine to twelve percent. And so the attack on the less-well-off would continue. Expect more, as Abbott believes these are Labor voters anyway.

I could go on and on describing what to expect should Abbott become PM, what vengeance to anticipate, but what I have described will have to suffice.

What is more disconcerting though than Abbott’s vengefulness is his weakness, weakness that would render him unable to resist the requests, the demands of his wealthy and influential sponsors.

Abbott the weak man

The ones who would call the shots, who would shout the orders to which Abbott would jump, are Rupert Murdoch and Gina Rinehart. Look at how obsequious Abbott is in the presence of these wealthy moguls.

Murdoch would want the threat to his Foxtel empire from the NBN neutralized. He would want no restrictions to his precious ‘freedom of the press’, which is code for him being able to say and print whatever he likes to support his commercial interests and his ideological preferences. Abbott would meekly comply; Murdoch would never see Abbott’s hairy chest. He would never see Abbott the boxer ready to flatten his adversary, or Abbott the student threatening his opponents.

Rinehart would want every concession she could wrench from Abbott, and would get it. He would make it easier for her to develop her mines, easier for her to avoid taxes that rightfully should support the common good. He would repeal the mining tax. He would support workers on 457 visas to build her mines. He would kiss her hand and give her what she demands, such as her plan for development of the North. The bravado Abbott shows against helpless asylum seekers would never be directed towards her; she is too prepossessing, too powerful, too determined to get her own way, too used to winning.

Of course, lesser lights such as Andrew Forrest would soon have his arm around Abbott seducing him to support Twiggy’s enterprises. Mitch Hooke of the Minerals Council of Australia would know that Abbott would jump if he clicks his fingers – he wouldn’t have to spend another $22 million on ads to get his way.

Peter Anderson of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry would have Abbott’s ear, urging him to reduce taxes, make the workplace more flexible, lessen red and green tape, minimize regulation, reduce company tax, and give business lots of incentives. Abbott would present an open door to the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Industry Group.

Abbott is a weak man who would not be able to resist the demands of powerful business and industry leaders. He would go wobbly at the knees and comply. He hasn’t got the ticker to stand firm.

Abbott has never acknowledged the reality of the global financial crisis and its ongoing sequelae; he has never acknowledged the ever-changing global economic circumstances and how Australia must adapt to them, even in his campaign launch today. It’s as if these situations never existed. Instead of giving voters a concrete ‘narrative’, the Holy Grail political journalists demanded of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, all he gave us today were his aspirations, some now stretched out over a decade. There were few concrete plans to achieve them, and no vision of what he wanted for this nation ten years from now. It’s so easy to mouth motherhood statements such his desire for ‘a stronger economy’, ‘more jobs’, ‘lower taxes’, ‘budget surpluses’, ‘better hospitals and schools’, and so on, but without concrete plans, they are just fine-sounding words, empty of substance. Why the paltry narrative? Is it because he awaits directives from the wealthy and the powerful? He creative slate looks blank, waiting as it seems to be for his mentors to write their narrative.

Perhaps even more sinisterly, Abbott would be subject to the pressure of his mentor, Cardinal George Pell. With his Catholic upbringing, with his Jesuit education so deeply entrenched in his psyche, he would weakly submit to the power of his Church, to the influence of his mentor. He would avoid policies that run counter to his Church’s dogma, as we are seeing manifest in his continuing unwillingness to allow a conscience vote in the Coalition on the matter of gay marriage. He would not be able to resist lobbying against abortion by his Church and the pro-lifers.

Should he become PM, this weakness of character would be even more detrimental to good governance, more dangerous to equity and fairness than the vengefulness that he would parade against the weak, against those who have no defence. The wealthy and powerful would prevail. Abbott, the weak man, would not resist.

Be afraid of an Abbott prime ministership, very afraid.

Say no, no, no to Tony Abbott.

Should you wish to ‘disseminate this post’, it will be sent to the following: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Julie Bishop, Chris Bowen, George Brandis, Mathias Cormann, Josh Frydenberg, Joe Hockey, Christine Milne, Scott Morrison, Christopher Pyne, Andrew Robb, Kevin Rudd, Bill Shorten, Arthur Sinodinos, Warren Truss, Malcolm Turnbull, Penny Wong and Nick Xenophon.

The Great Debate Debacle

Has anyone had a good word to say about the Great Debate last Sunday? What was it all about? What was the intent of the organizers?

Was it to provide entertainment for the viewers of the channels involved?
Was it to try out some new opinion-counting gadgetry?
Was it to stage a head-to-head contest to pick a winner?
Was it to see who was the best debater?
Was it to satisfy the debating elite by following their preferred format?
Was it to see who had the sharpest repartee, the best rejoinder?
Was it to see who exhibited the coolest demeanour, the highest confidence?
Was it to look for stumbles, inept utterances, embarrassing gaffes, headline makers?
Was it to make the involved journalists look erudite, sharp, and perceptive?
Was it to give fodder for the TV and radio news, and the next day’s papers?

I suspect it was all of the above.

Yet it turned out to be paltry entertainment and showed lamentable inconsistency between counting gadgets, with several picking Kevin Rudd a comfortable winner, while another recorded the striking reverse. It never assessed debating attributes and oral skills directly, and failed to satisfy the debating pundits. It only obliquely addressed demeanour and confidence and found a few stumbles, Rudd’s use of notes being the one most mentioned. It did show though how out of touch and inept the journalists were at organizing and conducting such an event. It certainly did provide fodder for lots of news and opinion writing, most of it inconsequential or uninformed. Overall though, the Great Debate was a debacle.

Was it to help voters decide who was the most suitable leader to be the next PM?
Was it to enlighten voters about the salient issues of the election?
Was it to tell voters about the vision the leaders have for the nation?
Was it to inform voters about how the leaders viewed the challenges ahead?
Was it to help voters decide who had the best policies to cope with them?
Was it to help voters decide who had the most accurate costings?
Was it to help voters feel confident that at least one of the leaders had what it takes to lead the nation effectively, efficiently, and wisely for the next triennium?

In my view, it was none of the above. I doubt if these aims entered into the minds of the organizers. If they did, if the organizers were hoping to elucidate these matters, the ‘debate’ was an abject failure.

Yet, we ought not to be surprised. If one were hoping to address these issues, why would the organizers and interrogators be drawn from a decaying and incompetent Fourth Estate that has shown itself to be remote from mainstream Australians, trapped in the Canberra echo-chamber where groupthink abounds and reverberations deafen, where a foreign mogul issues instructions from on high about what he wants and how his journalists shall get it for him?

If we have a repeat of the Great Debate, the concept of debates between leaders at election time will atrophy and die. The format was wrong, the organizers were unsuitable, the interrogators inappropriate, and it was not even enjoyable entertainment.

It’s easy to be critical. It’s not so easy to be innovative, to be constructive. What follows is an attempt to outline a foundation for a debate that has a chance of being more informative for voters. I recognize that there may be resistance from one or more of the political parties to any attempt to give voters sound evidence on which to base their voting decisions. I suspect that for both major parties the crucial tasks are as follows:

Avoid any error that diminishes the party’s prestige or the leader’s status.
Avoid saying anything that will be fodder for the gaffe-hungry Fourth Estate.
Avoid committing to anything that is contrary to party policy.
Avoid committing to anything that might come back to haunt the party.
Avoid promises or suggestions that might turn out to be inappropriate, unattainable, or politically unwise.
Avoid giving figures or costings unless they are unquestionably correct.
Never miss an opportunity to criticize the opponent.
Never miss an opportunity to make a hypercritical comment, or utter a well-tried slogan.
Put down and embarrass the opponent at every opportunity.
Impugn the opponent’s character, motives and intent.
Repeat criticisms no matter how well worn, no matter how out-of-date.
Use sarcasm liberally. Demean at every opportunity.
Use distortions of the truth ‘when it is safe to do so’.
Insist that no matter how poorly the debate has gone for you, you won.
Be ready to remind the media of any gaffes, misstatements, inaccuracies, or lies your opponent perpetrated during the debate.

Given this formidable list of negative tasks that both sides always have in mind, it would not be unreasonable to conclude that a rational and productive debate between leaders is simply not possible to arrange. Anyway let’s try.

What I want to know before voting can be summarized as follows:

What vision do the leaders have for this nation for the next three years, and the next decade?
Put another way, what sort of nation would they wish to see in three and ten years?
Given that Australia exists in a global economy where what is happening elsewhere impinges comprehensively on our economy, especially what is happening in China, India, Japan, United States, Europe, the developing economies in our region, and in South America, what are the economic challenges facing the nation now, and likely to be in the next decade?
How do the leaders plan to address these challenges, one by one?
Do the leaders seek to bring the Budget back into balance?
If so, when do they expect they might be able to do this?
How do they plan to do this?
What moves do they plan to improve revenue and reduce expenditure to achieve this?
How do they plan to correct the longstanding structural defects in the Budget that so adversely affect it now?
How do they plan to reduce debt, over what period, and in what circumstances?
What are the attributes for the economy for which each leader is striving?
In particular, what are the desirable levels of growth, unemployment, participation, productivity, debt to GDP ratio, terms of trade, rating agency ratings, consumer and business confidence, inflation, RBA cash rates, interest rates, investment, business activity (retail, manufacturing, mining, agricultural), housing starts, housing affordability, business starts and defaults, and infrastructure development?
What are their specific policies to develop and to grow the economy?
What are their specific policies to create jobs?
Specifically, what are their policies to support car manufacturing?
Specifically, what are their policies to support small business?
What policies do they have in other portfolio areas that are designed to support the economy?
What is their tax policy?
What changes to tax policy are they advocating? Is a change to the GST an option?
How might these be brought about?
What are their priorities for expenditure?
Specifically, what emphasis do they propose to give to major areas of expenditure: on health, aged care and disability; education; welfare and transfer payments; immigration; defence; diplomatic activity and overseas aid; and the public service?
Will all policies and their cost be made available well before Election Day?

The questions above are related to the economy. But how many of these have been addressed in the campaign and in the Great Debate?

As Ben Eltham pointed out: “All in all, we’re not hearing a lot of detail from our politicians about their economic policies. Instead, the ongoing fascination with the deficit as a proxy for economic management continues to distract from the bigger picture. In a tougher and more substantial media environment, this lack of detail would be called out, as Colebatch does today on Opposition costings. But on the whole, the media continues to obsess over trivia, like Kevin Rudd’s notes in Sunday night’s leaders’ debate, or Tony Abbott’s unfortunate turn of phrase about suppositories.”

Ross Gittins says: “The two leaders' aim in the debate was the same as their aim in this campaign: to make it to election day while giving as few commitments as possible about what they'll do in the next three years.” Later he opines: “In modern campaigning, tough issues aren't debated, they're closed off.”

We are likely to reach Election Day with very few answers to these economic questions. At least Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan, and later Kevin Rudd, Chris Bowen and Penny Wong addressed, and clearly spelt out the economic challenges facing this nation in the decade ahead. Everyone ought to know them by now.

In contrast, Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey, Andrew Robb and Mathias Cormann have never done so. Indeed, to a man they have denied the dire global economic situation, as if it never existed, as if it did not exist now. Instead, they have tried to sheet home to the Government responsibility for the budgetary problems it faces as a result of falling revenue. It’s all the Government’s fault according to them, and has nothing to do with the slowdown in the economy of China and its diminishing need for resources, nothing to do with the fall in the world prices for commodities, nothing to do with the recession in Europe or the sluggish economy in the US, nothing to do with the high Australian dollar. It’s all Labor’s mismanagement that has caused the problem. And with a compliant, unquestioning Fourth Estate, there is almost no one to challenge the Coalition’s disingenuousness, deception and outright lies. They are spread far and wide by the Murdoch press, particularly through its tabloid headlines, with Fairfax, and even the ABC echoing them. The voices of the few sensible and balanced commentators, such a Ross Gittins, Peter Martin, Stephen Koukoulas, and Laura Tingle, are drowned out by the cacophony of adverse comment streaming daily from the anti-Labor media.

Labor has attempted via several formal addresses by Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd and Chris Bowen to spell out how it plans to counter the adverse global economic environment in which Australia is immersed, and manage the transition of our economy from a resource-based one to a more diversified one that focuses on manufacturing, service provision and agriculture. In contrast, all we have heard from the Coalition is a bunch of motherhood statements, a plethora of oft-repeated slogans, and precious little substance.

If you think that is unfair comment, take a look through the Coalition’s formal statements in its booklet: Our Plan Real Solutions for All Australians, the one that Abbott and his team clutch to their chest during pressers, always cover side out. It’s quite nicely laid out, and easy to follow. Download the PDF file and scroll through the content. At first there is some statements about Delivering a strong, prosperous economy and a safe, secure Australia. Then scroll to page 28 and read the section headed: Building a Five pillar economy and unleashing Australia’s potential.

Some of you may nod in approval because there are few motherhood aspirations there that could reasonably be challenged, but look for the detail about HOW these aspirations are to be accomplished. Don’t expect too much. Most of it you will have heard before. It is fine sounding, but superficial. This is what Ben Eltham had to say in New Matilda: “The Coalition has a plan to build a “five-pillar economy”, but details on this pentagonal wonder are hard to find. How will the Coalition drive growth in one of those five pillars, education and research? Apparently, according to the Coalition’s “Our Plan” brochure, “by removing the shackles and burdens holding the industry back and by making the industry more productive and globally competitive.” Clearly, he is left underwhelmed by detail in the Coalition’s ‘Real Solutions’.

This is what a debate between leaders ought to be about – teasing out the aspirations for the economy and wrapping them in the detail of how the aspirations will be achieved. The leaders ought not to be able to get away with platitudinous targets; it is the how that transforms laudable goals into actual achievements. That’s what we need to know. A good moderator ought to be able to extract that information, if indeed the leader is in possession of it. Perhaps the Chris Bowen/Joe Hockey encounter on Q&A on Monday night will give us what we want and need. It will be a forum that we can contrast with the forum of last Sunday’s debate.

So far, I have dealt with but one of the many areas of government that need appraisal – the economy, clearly the most important of all to the electorate. There are many others though – too many to deal with here. Health, education, industrial relations, immigration, and global warming spring to mind. These too need to be addressed.

It is not just the content of the debates that need attention, it is the format.

The Sunday night format was awful. It was inappropriate on almost every count. First, I believe that if there is to be a journalist involved at all, moderator is the only role that might be appropriate. Journalists should not formulate the questions, or ask them. They should not presume to know the questions voters want answered.

For my part, I would prefer questions to be formulated by a panel familiar with the subject matter, and based on questions submitted by the voters. Well before the debate, the public should be invited to post questions on a website dedicated to the debate. These would then be aggregated into groups, and questions refined from them. This would not be difficult or time consuming.

The debate is not for the purpose of tripping up the leaders, or even testing their capacity to remember the details of their policies. It is not an exam. So why not send them the questions a few days in advance to give them the chance to prepare full, yet concise answers. We want to know what the policies really are, not how well the leaders remember them or even how well they articulate them in an off-the-cuff answer, certainly not how well they spin an answer off the top of their head.

A competent moderator should present the questions, which should also be displayed boldly on a screen behind the leaders, so they are visible to viewers throughout the answers. Each leader is given the same time to respond, and should be permitted to use visual aids such as graphs and graphics. The eye combined with the ear is better than the ear alone. The moderator should have the right to interrupt if the speaker is wandering off topic or avoiding the question, if he makes a contentious or contestable statement, if he reverts to motherhood statements or slogans, and if he spends too long criticising his opponent.

There should be opportunities for each leader to challenge the other’s assertions and ask for evidence.

Each debate should be confined to just one major topic, or a small group of related topics, such as, for example, health, aged care and disability. Too many topics in the one debate foster superficiality, as we saw during the first debate.

I do not believe community forums are suitable for such a debate between leaders. Those I have witnessed have been characterized by partisan questioning by audience ‘plants’, and stereotypical answers. Nor do I think the Q&A format, where the audience pose the questions, is suitable. While some Q&A sessions have been laudable (and entertaining), for a debate where in-depth probing of the leaders is crucial, this format is unlikely to achieve what voters need. And we certainly don’t want to be entertained. We want to be informed. The format for the Bowen/Hockey encounter on Q&A will be worthy of note. In particular, I will be looking to see how Tony Jones garners the questions, how he keeps the speakers on topic, the extent to which he interrupts, how appropriate those interruptions are, and how well the speakers inform the viewers about their policies and their costings.

In summary, I believe the best arrangement for these debates would be to divide the major issues into four or five main topics, invite the public to post online the questions they want addressed, have a panel of professionals in the subject refine the questions, send them to the speakers beforehand, have an accomplished moderator pose them and then monitor the leaders’ contributions, allowing interaction between them. There ought to be an hour-long debate on each major topic, or group of topics. I would favour having ministers and shadow ministers involved as well as the leaders. That would somewhat tone down the presidential tenor that now overwhelms this election campaign.

We need more debates, better information, more transparency, deeper insight, more honesty.

There it is folks. It may be pie in the sky.

What do you think?

If you decide to ‘Disseminate this post’, it will be sent to the following: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Julie Bishop, Chris Bowen, George Brandis, Mathias Cormann, Joe Hockey, Scott Morrison, Christopher Pyne, Andrew Robb, Kevin Rudd, Tony Smith, Warren Truss, Malcolm Turnbull and Penny Wong

Partisan economics

If the election is to be decided on who are the best managers of the economy, which the polls tell us is at the top of the electorate's concerns, how on earth are voters supposed to make that decision? As Edgar R Fielder said: Ask five economists and you'll get five different answers - six if one went to Harvard.

This is just what we are seeing day after day from economists as they comment on the pronouncements of politicians and announcements on economic policy.

It is unsurprising that politicians put their own spin on the same situation. Take the RBA’s lowering of the cash rate to 2.5% this week. Chris Bowen and Kevin Rudd pointed out that this would mean a saving of $45 on the monthly repayment of the average $300,000 home loan – good news for homebuyers – and it would be good too for small businesses seeking loans. On the other hand, Joe Hockey was out there preemptively knocking the rise before it was announced, and after the announcement, adamant that the lowering of interest rates was a sign that the economy was weak and weakening, and of course that was because the Government was mismanaging the economy.

How then do economists, all grappling with the same factual evidence, rate this change to the cash rate? If you thought the evidence would speak for itself, and that it would lead to the same assessment, you would have been disappointed.

Around four years ago, at the time the Government was applying its stimulus package, I wrote this in What value are economists to our society?One of my longstanding gripes has been about the influence on economics writers of their preferred economic model. Henry Ergas’ reference in the Current Account Blog to his beloved Friedman in response to the upbeat GDP that just about everyone else attributed to the stimulus packages, is a case in point. I wrote about this on TPS in The problem with economists back in February 2009. Referring to the contemporary debate about when and how the stimulus should be withdrawn now that the economy seemed to be recovering, Crikey’s Bernard Keane said: “There are no - no - economists or business groups who think it is time for the stimulus to be wound back, except for those on the far right or Liberal shills such as Henry Ergas, who opposed the stimulus package in the first place.”

“Another grumble is the way journalists allow their political leanings to influence what ought to be an objective analysis of the undeniable facts. Michael Stutchbury of The Australian [now of The Australian Financial Review] is an example. Bernard Keane said in Crikey: “After the March quarter figures, anti-Labor commentators like Michael Stutchbury tried to argue that the modest growth was a consequence of exports only, ignoring the fact that the stimulus packages had prevented domestic demand from collapsing the same way it had in the US, the UK and other developed economies. Today’s figures blow the Stutchbury argument clean out of the water, with exports a trivial contributor to the overall growth figure – although like the Coalition, Stutchbury has now switched to urging that the stimulus has been too successful and needs to be wound back.”

“With commentators of the likes of Ergas and Stutchbury, what can readers who lack a profound knowledge of economics, really believe? As Keane put it in a piece on Crikey, ‘Nothing more stimulating than press gallery groupthink’: “The ‘debate’ over whether the Government should pull back on the stimulus package is a classic case of a press gallery trying to frame a real-world issue into a narrow, political framework that suits its own reporting purposes. It is a collective illusion being foisted on the mainstream media’s ever-smaller audiences by journalists and commentators unable or unwilling to see outside the gallery prism of winners and losers and political personalities.”

This past week we saw the same phenomenon – economists using their preferred model of economics to argue their case, and worse still, allowing their political bias to colour their assessments.

On the ABC’s The World Today on August 7, Eleanor Hall interviewed economists Stephen Koukoulas and Henry Ergas. Stephen Koukoulas is the Managing Director of Market Economics. He has been chief economist for two global banks and was the senior economic advisor to former Prime Minister Julia Gillard for a year after the last election, having moved there from a senior role in the Commonwealth Treasury. Henry Ergas is a professor of Infrastructure Economics and senior economic adviser at Deloitte Access Economics. He was an economist at the OECD in Paris and on returning to Australia in the mid-1990s, he chaired several Howard government inquiries on regulatory and competition issues and more recently advised the Coalition on tax reform.

Hall introduced the discussion with: “So just how responsible is the Coalition's $2.5 billion a year promise to cut company taxes at a time when the Reserve Bank of Australia has now cut interest rates to their lowest level in half a century?

“While Labor is describing yesterday's RBA board decision as a gift to struggling households – and to the Government in the middle of an election campaign – the Coalition says it's more evidence of Labor's mismanagement of the economy.

“So is the Australian economy in dire straits, is the budget in crisis and is Australia's triple-A credit rating under threat?”

The background of these economists gives an inkling of what their responses might be to Hall’s first question: “The Reserve Bank Board has now cut the cash rate to its lowest level in half a century, below what Kevin Rudd described, when he was last Prime Minister, as an emergency level.

“First to you Stephen Koukoulas? Is Australia's economy now in a state of emergency?

Note Koukoulas’ adamant response:

STEPHEN KOUKOULAS: "It's nowhere near it. It's absurd to think that it is the case. We're growing at about 2.5 per cent. The unemployment rate is 5.7 per cent. Inflation's nice and low. And we're looking at the forward indicators, things like housing, it's clearly on something of an upswing. And of course with the lower dollar we're getting an export boost.

“So look, the low interest rates are there because inflation is very low because we're part of a global economy where inflation is low and decelerating so that's given the Reserve Bank scope to move interest rates lower.

“The difference between now and back in 2009 when we did have an emergency, is that fiscal policy is now being tightened quite aggressively whereas at the time we had a very, very aggressive stimulus measure, which moved fiscal policy to a very accommodative phase.”

ELEANOR HALL: “So was yesterday's rate cut necessary?

STEPHEN KOUKOULAS: “Oh yes it was necessary because we had the inflation numbers just a couple of weeks ago that confirmed inflation was in the bottom part of the RBA target range.

“We do know that the unemployment rate is drifting a little bit higher and I think we just need that final little bit of an impetus to make sure that the recovery that seems to be underway gets some traction and that when we get to 2014 the economy's back at trend.”

So Koukoulas, Ex-Treasury, who has advised Labor, has a positive view about the rate cut. Now let’s see what Henry Ergas says. He regularly writes anti-Labor articles in The Australian.

ELEANOR HALL: “So Henry Ergas, what's your sense of the state of the economy? Would you describe these as emergency-level interest rates?”

HENRY ERGAS: “Well they're certainly very low interest rates. I think the important fact is that despite recovery in the US, the international outlook is highly uncertain with uncertainty about China and where the best that one can say for Europe is that perhaps it's bottoming out. And that, together with increases in global supply, means that we've had a reduction in commodity prices and a fall in the terms of trade and that in turn is reflected in what seems to be the end of the investment phase of the resource boom.

“And as that plays itself out domestic growth has flowed below the levels that it's capable of achieving and looks likely to remain below those levels for a little while with unemployment rising. And so in that situation it was obviously sensible for the Reserve Bank to try to stimulate the economy a bit through this interest rate cut.”

Note how he rates the economy as slowing and in need of the stimulatory effect of an interest rate cut. Hall gently tries to pin him down:

ELEANOR HALL: “Henry Ergas, to try and understand the politics of this a little bit, are low interest rates a sign of good economic management, as the Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey said in 2004, or of government mismanagement as he's saying now?”

Note how Ergas digs himself out of this more pointed question.

HENRY ERGAS: “Well they can be, in a way they can be both right. You can have low interest rates because you've gotten everything working properly, you have low inflation, growth is strong, but the economy has scope to continue to grow at those levels, or grow even a bit more rapidly without inflation picking up.

“In that context, there's clearly scope for low interest rates. Equally, low interest rates can be a response to a situation where the economy is growing by significantly less than potential. And perhaps where growth rates are looking uncertain and in that context a move to lower growth rates, to try to stimulate the economy through monetary policy can be an appropriate response to weaker economic performance.”

These are cleverly spoken words that align him with the Hockey view. Hall tries again to pin him down.

ELEANOR HALL: “So is the Coalition right when it says this low interest rate is because Labor has mismanaged the economy?”

HENRY ERGAS: “I think the current low interest rates reflect a growth outlook that is not as strong as it should be. And an important factor in that growth outlook is obviously the uncertainty about both fiscal policy and important areas of structural policy which may be having the effect of both reducing the economy's potential growth rate and preventing it from achieving even that potential in the immediate term.”

Ergas is edging even closer to the Hockey view. Note how he points the finger at “…uncertainty about both fiscal policy and important areas of structural policy…," clearly impugning Labor. Note too how he completely fails to mention the slowing global economy, which is impinging on our economy.

So Hall turns to Koukoulas with a different question that explores this reality:

ELEANOR HALL: “Stephen Koukoulas, to what extent does the Government need to take responsibility for the weakening economy?”

STEPHEN KOUKOULAS: “Not a lot. I think the issues, when we look at why the economy has cooled off over the past six to nine months, we've got an unexpected cooling in China where growth has slowed from above 8.5 per cent to around about 7 per cent on the latest forecasts. And that's dragged the terms of trade down as we saw in the Government's update on Friday. So we've got this negative shock that's coming from our biggest trading partner and a fall in commodity prices.

“We've also got this scenario that I mentioned before that global inflation is very low and that translates into a more broadly based fall in commodity prices. So there are areas that are outside the control of the Government. And in fact one of the issues that we saw from the Government is that it's allowing the automatic stabiliser in the budget to work, which has caused the budget deficit to be a little bit bigger in the current financial year 13-14.

“And that's actually going to be providing a little bit of extra stimulus to the economy as well. So we've got fiscal policy moving to a more neutral to a slightly stimulatory stance. We certainly have monetary policy at very stimulatory levels which will be definitely the groundwork for the economy to pick up over the course of the next 12 months.”

Clearly, Koukoulas points his finger at: “…areas that are outside the control of the Government…" to explain our current situation, and sees a favourable future when he points to: “…monetary policy [being] at very stimulatory levels which will be definitely the groundwork for the economy to pick up over the course of the next 12 months”, a positive outlook.

These excerpts illustrate partisan economics. The political leanings of the two economists influence their ‘opinions’. The ‘facts’ are interpreted in quite different ways: Stephen Koukoulas presents all the facts and draws a conclusion positive for the Government; Henry Ergas cherry-picks the facts that suit his partisan views and draws negative conclusions that align with Coalition viewpoints. Whom do we believe?

George Bernard Shaw said: “If all the economists were laid end to end, they'd never reach a conclusion.” This piece of dialogue illustrates that well.

Hall then addressed the other burning question of the day – Tony Abbott’s promise of a 1.5% reduction in Company Tax to 28.5%.

ELEANOR HALL: “Well let's look at the Coalition's big spending promise today. To you Henry Ergas - three days ago Mr Abbott said he would deliver company tax cuts "when affordable". Today he promised to deliver them in 2015. Is this $2.5 billion a year tax cut affordable and responsible?”

HENRY ERGAS: “Well I believe it's ultimately affordable. What it really depends on is getting the fiscal policy settings right and the problem is that over recent years what we've seen and had is a government that has a deficit when times are good, has a deficit when times are extraordinarily good, and now has a deficit when it says times are not bad, but not as good as one would like.

“So it seems that under all circumstances, we are running a deficit. And clearly were that to continue, then tax cuts would not be feasible. But if we can get the overall settings of fiscal policy right and return to a situation where we take fiscal rules seriously and try to achieve structural budget surpluses over successive cycles, then cutting the corporate tax rate makes very good sense because as the Henry Review emphasised, the company tax rates are relatively highly distorting and they both reduce our growth potential and reduce Australian living standards in the long term.”

ELEANOR HALL: “You mentioned the former treasury secretary Ken Henry there. Yesterday he said that whoever wins on September the 7th will have to cut spending or raise taxes or both to deal with the deficit problem, and yet here we've got the Coalition with a big spending tax cut. Do you think that is a problem? Do you agree with Ken Henry?”

HENRY ERGAS: “Well clearly the situation is that if we are to return to a sustainable fiscal position, then that will require some tough choices. And those tough choices have to be in the first instance, choices about spending.

“The reality is that if you look at the period from 2007-8 to the present, revenues have risen very sharply. I mean, revenues have increased over that period by almost $80 billion. And this is the source of the deficit. The problem is that payments have increased by close to $130 billion...and so what you need to do is look at that and say how much of that spending really does pass a sensible cost benefit test? If you don't do that you will never bring a fiscal situation under control.”

Ergas sheets home the blame to Labor’s spending. He points out, as do Hockey and Abbott, that revenue is rising, but fails to acknowledge that it is not rising as rapidly as projected because of the global economic situation, leaving a large shortfall.

Hall then tackles the elephant in the room – the GST.

ELEANOR HALL: “And we've just heard both sides emphatically rule out an increase to the GST. Of course that's expected during an election campaign, but Stephen Koukoulas from an economic point of view, should they be looking at increasing their Goods and Services Tax rate?

STEPHEN KOUKOULAS: “Well they need to do something on the revenue and I think Henry [Ergas] just got an error there – the tax receipts have actually fallen by around about 2 to 2.5 per cent of GDP. We've got a very, very low tax take at the moment from the Government which is causing the fiscal concerns, that the spending to GDP ratios did increase obviously during the depths of the financial crisis but have now sort of scaled back to roughly the average of the last 30 or 40 years where the tax to GDP ratios are only in around about 21, 22 per cent. Where as recently as 2003,4,5 they were about 24 per cent of GDP.

“So…if there is a problem, and I don't think there is one,…to the extent that we need to balance the budget over the cycle it's got to be the revenue side that does it. And with an income tax cut sort of throwing away a couple of billion dollars a year, while of course we'd all love to have lower income and company tax rates, it is a desirable medium term objective? But at the moment when we've got perhaps a higher priority of balancing the budget it seems to be perhaps the wrong time to be talking about it or implementing it." 

ELEANOR HALL: “Well there's a lot more to talk about on the economy. But we'll have to wrap it there.”

So there it is. We have two economists looking at the same data set, yet seeing causes and effects quite differently. Economists have a strong tendency to see the facts through the prism of their preferred model of economics. Some, such as Henry Ergas in this instance, see the facts through the optics of their partisan biases, and choose those that suit their argument. This is ‘Partisan economics’ writ large.

How can the average voter decide who is telling the truth most accurately? Economists would argue that what we are seeing is simply different points of view. But it’s not just that. What we are seeing is economists trying to persuade readers to their own viewpoint, instead of doing what they ought to do: present the facts and then argue the case for this interpretation or that, and only then draw a rational conclusion. In the dialogue above, one came close, the other didn’t.

Are such debates, despite their potential, worth the effort? If all we get is another dose of political spin, and from those who are supposed to be balanced, the answer sadly is NO.

Ross Gittins sums up the problem for economists: “Business economists long ago learnt to keep their heads down and their lips buttoned during [election] campaigns, for fear something they say is taken up by one side, prompting the other side to blacken their name. Too many people's careers have become collateral damage in the political fighting.”

They could avoid that outcome if they simply gave a balanced exposition, but that seems beyond most.

What do you think?

If you decide to ‘Disseminate this post’: it will be emailed to the following: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Julie Bishop, Chris Bowen, David Bradbury, George Brandis, Doug Cameron, Kim Carr, Mathias Cormann, Josh Frydenberg, Joe Hockey, Greg Hunt, Ed Husic, Barnaby Joyce, Andrew Leigh, Christine Milne, Sophie Mirabella, Christopher Pyne, Andrew Robb, Kevin Rudd, Arthur Sinodinos, Warren Truss, Malcolm Turnbull, Penny Wong and Nick Xenophon.

The quickening disintegration of Tony Abbott

It shows in his face. Taut, tense, worried, he looks like a man under great pressure when he fronts for impromptu pressers. His sycophants, seldom smiling, occasionally furtively smirking, nod behind him in unspoken approval. He often has Margie at hand to prop him up. He speaks haltingly, his gravelly voice grinding out his ‘message for the day’ dutifully learned at the morning briefing from his minders.

He was not looking good when I wrote The inexorable disintegration of the Leader of the Opposition in November 2012. Nine long months later, his disintegration is noticeably worse.

Reasons abound for his decline. In the latter months of Julia Gillard’s prime ministership with poll after poll running persistently and decisively against her, his confidence of an electoral triumph on September 14 was running sky high. Then, on June 20, what he had been plumping for since 2010 occurred abruptly – the political demise of his bête noir Julia Gillard. He must have thought about this possibility, but when it arrived at the eleventh parliamentary hour, out of what he thought was a clear run to the election, he seemed surprised, looked flat-footed, and reacted lamely. It had all looked so easy, but suddenly he was facing a resurgent Kevin Rudd, who obviously had been planning his prime ministerial resurrection for many months, planning how to counter this slogan-driven man.

All Tony Abbott’s plans for countering Julia Gillard had to be discarded and new ones to counter Kevin Rudd rapidly developed. Predictably, he flicked the switch to extreme negative, talked about Rudd being a dud, brought out from storage the nasty comments Rudd’s colleagues had made about him eighteen months before, and ran some ‘lemon’ ads along these lines. But their frequency soon dropped as Rudd’s reappearance evoked an enthusiastic reaction from the electorate. Many out there felt he had been very badly treated when he was rejected and replaced in 2010, and derived satisfaction at his dramatic renaissance. For many voters ‘revenge was sweet’; they revelled in Rudd’s rebirth. Abbott was caught open-mouthed.

Clearly, Rudd had been developing his strategy for ages. He saw that neutralizing key planks in Abbott’s election platform was crucial.

His first move was to defuse the ‘carbon tax’ charade. Although Abbott and the sycophantic Greg Hunt mindlessly continued with their ‘carbon tax is ruining the economy’ mantra, all the evidence of the last twelve months made that catchphrase unsustainable. Whyalla continued to prosper, the small increases in electricity costs resulting from the tax were exactly as predicted, and the cost of lamb roasts failed to soar to $100. Well-compensated consumers ceased complaining. Talk of ‘the ever rising cost of living’ by Abbott, Joe Hockey and the Fourth Estate was soon seen by objective observers as empty hype.

A problem that never was had lost its illusory magic for the Coalition, but its minders persisted in pumping out the same tired old carbon tax rhetoric. When Rudd declared that Labor would bring forward by one year the transition from a price on carbon to an emissions trading scheme linked to the market in Europe and elsewhere, the Coalition’s carbon tax scaremongering was effectively buried. Rudd pointed out that he had thereby effectively ‘terminated’ the carbon tax, leaving Abbott’s longstanding threat to ‘axe the tax’ an empty gesture. Abbott could not terminate it any quicker.

Abbott’s reaction was to insist that an ETS was still a tax and that Rudd was using sleight of hand. He lamely told a Launceston audience that "He's changed its name, but he hasn't abolished the tax. He's not the terminator, he's the exaggerator. He’s not the terminator, he’s the fabricator”. He continued with his line that business would still be heavily burdened, although with the price of CO2 on the European market being less than the existing fixed price, the burden would actually lessen. Abbott’s carbon tax weapon buckled - a flimsy plastic sword attempting to pierce tough armour.

Although people stopped listening to his weary predictions of carbon tax doom, it took many days before his minders advised him to ease up on what was now a spent campaign of fear mongering. He still occasionally utters carbon tax hyperbole, but without conviction. His intention that the next election be a ‘referendum on the carbon tax’ quietly evaporated, leaving him dismayed, stammering and deflated. The Abbott disintegration gathered pace. He was like a boy whose most treasured marble had been smashed by his opponent’s prize tombola.

Anticipating an adverse ICAC finding about ex-Labor ministers Eddie Obeib and Ian Macdonald, Rudd announced a reorganization of the NSW Labor Party and a new mechanism for replacing a Labor PM. Knowing that he would have to wear the ignominy of that corruption inquiry, Rudd attempted to blunt it. Abbott was soon out trying to implicate Rudd and Federal Labor. ”Labor is rotten to the core” he insisted. How much that affair will be in the mind of NSW voters at election time is unknowable; Nathan Rees estimates it will reduce Labor’s primary vote there by 2 to 3%. How much can Abbott damage Labor over and above the damage already done? Rudd was proactive, leaving Abbott to react, but to what effect?

Next Rudd sought to deactivate the asylum seeker issue, one that has bedeviled Labor ever since he removed elements of Howard’s Pacific Solution in 2008. The issue was causing such angst among some voters, most noticeably in Western Sydney, that it needed to be defused. Curiously though, a recent Essential Report revealed that it was well down the list of voters’ most important issues in deciding how to vote. But as it was going to be a source of adverse publicity every time another boat arrived, it needed to be neutralized, and Abbott’s ‘turn the boats around’ strategy nullified.

Rudd met with Indonesian President Yudhoyono, who in a joint communiqué with Rudd made it clear that Indonesia did not approve of any unilateral action by Australia, which turning boats around would have been. Rudd pointedly drew that to the Coalition's attention. Abbott, Scott Morrison and Julie Bishop tried to counter by suggesting that they had some sort of understanding with Indonesia about the turn back policy, only to have that rebutted by Indonesian officials. Desultory talk of the boats being ‘Indonesian boats, Indonesian flagged, boarded in Indonesian ports, and crewed by Indonesians’, which was code for ‘these are your boats, you can have them back’, was not well received. All this exposed Coalition disrespect towards Indonesia, an aggressive, hairy-chested, Howardesque ‘we will decide who comes here’ approach, and a neo-colonial attitude. It reflected Abbott’s lack of diplomatic skills, his aggression, and the disarray of his plans to counter boat arrivals.

Next, after a meeting in Brisbane with the PM of Papua New Guinea, Peter O’Neill, Kevin Rudd announced jointly with him an arrangement for PNG to permanently resettle those arriving by boat without a visa. The message to asylum seekers and people traffickers was strident: "Any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia as a refugee".

At first Abbott seemed impressed enough to not instantly oppose the PNG plan, no doubt thinking it could serve him well. Predictably though, he could not resist the temptation to knock the idea, and Rudd, the originator. Soon he was telling anyone who would listen that Rudd was all talk and no action, that while he was great at making announcements he was hopeless at implementation, that the PNG plan would likely fail, and that the boats would continue. Abbott and Bishop unwisely said that Rudd was handing O’Neill a blank aid cheque, (which of course the Coalition would never do), and that O’Neill had boasted to them that he now had full control of Australia’s aid budget to PNG. A stern rebuttal by O’Neill left Abbott and Bishop floundering and wary of exacerbating their diplomatic blunder. Losing his nerve in an aspect of national leadership in which he has had no experience, Abbott looked flummoxed; Bishop bravely tried to parry it away.

So far two planeloads of single men are already on Manus Island, and the boat arrivals have slowed. If the boat arrivals are halted, if the people smugglers accept that their ‘product’ – residence in Australia – is no longer saleable, Rudd will be able to say: ‘Labor’s PNG plan has stopped the boats’, which would leave Admiral Abbott slopping about in his own boat, well and truly up the creek without a paddle. Time will tell how well Rudd’s PNG plan neutralizes Abbott’s ‘We’ll stop the boats’ mantra. If it does, that would leave another Abbott weapon blunted and crumpled, and Abbott’s disintegration gathering speed.

The Coalition’s next reaction was to boost the Nauru facility with a big increase in capacity with lots more tents. Abbott extolled Nauru as a pleasant island, implying that refugees ought to be satisfied being housed and even settled there. Scott Morrison travelled there on a private jet at the invitation of Toll Holdings, major suppliers of tents, along with a News Limited reporter and photographer to give publicity to the Coalition announcement that it would put up more tents to accommodate another 2000 asylum seekers. Immigration Minister Tony Burke quickly pointed out that putting a public figure on total capacity was a mistake, “as it gave people smugglers intelligence about how to ‘game’ and ‘overwhelm’ the policy”.

Yesterday, in a move that emulates Abbott’s Nauru Plan, Kevin Rudd and Nauru's President Baron Waqa signed an agreement similar to the PNG one. Asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat can now be processed in Nauru and, if found to be genuine refugees, can be resettled there. Once more, the Government is calling the shots on refugees; when the Coalition makes a move, Rudd matches it. Abbott and Morrison play their top card; Rudd trumps it. They can't take a trick!

The level of disarray in Coalition circles was then exposed even more starkly, this time over education funding and the Gonski recommendations. Initially, Abbott and his verbose education spokesman Christopher Pyne ridiculed Gonski, with a ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach. Pyne could see nothing wrong with the current system of funding despite the report of the Gonski committee after many months of exhaustive work that demonstrated conclusively that the system was unfair, inequitable to the disadvantaged and the public sector, and indeed ‘broken’.

The Abbott/Pyne reaction was first to say that Gonski was a ‘con’, a ‘Conski’, and that since this National Plan for School Improvement was indeed a national one, unless all States collaborated the Coalition would not proceed with it in government. Then it insisted that the ‘vast majority’ of States should be ‘on board’. Then it stepped back a little and said it would honour any deals done with the States for its first year in Government. Last week Abbott wrote to all school principals indicating that the Coalition had ‘deep reservations’ about the Gonski arrangements. Yet the next day he announced it would match all the Gonski funding arrangements that Labor has made with the States, boasting that ‘Kevin Rudd and I are on a unity ticket’. Obviously, he needed to neutralize this issue. Did State premiers put a flea in his ear, or did private Liberal polling tell him that opposition to Gonski was a big negative among voters?

In a blustering interview, Pyne confirmed that the Coalition would honour the Gonski ‘funding envelope’, but would dismantle what he termed ‘Labor’s central command and control features’. He insisted the Coalition would give more control to schools and principals. Abbott, Pyne, and the Coalition, have collectively turned turtle on virtually every aspect of Gonski, except on the issue of ‘school autonomy’, which incidentally runs counter to the concept of a national curriculum and consequent Gillard reforms. After all the huff and puff on Gonski, what we have now is an almost total Coalition retreat, or to use journalistic parlance, ‘a massive back flip’. Some commentators though are labeling the back flip a ‘con’. Time will tell.

In the lead up to the Government’s Economic Statement, Joe Hockey was out there preempting its content by insisting that the Government’s estimates were always wrong, never right, never to be trusted, that the Government had lost control of its budget, and in fact it was hopeless! He went close to demeaning Treasury. No doubt this outburst was also to preempt the inevitable criticism that will be heaped upon his head when the Gonski funding of $5 billion a year is added to the $70 billion Hockey has already conceded he has to find in expenditure cuts, and he struggles to do so. He seems unwilling to accept Treasury figures, is not committed to the Charter of Budget Honesty that Peter Costello established, and is talking about using State government resources and private accounting firms to verify Coalition costings – shades of the ‘audit’ of its costings that Perth accountants HK Howarth carried out last time, for which it copped a professional reprimand and a fine for its shonky work.

Have you noticed how testy, angry, and belligerent Hockey has become of late? His bellowing has become more strident; his mouth opens even wider, his assertions are more raucous, his fists clenched tighter. It is a sign of tension, anxiety and anger that the election that was to be a shoo-in is now a tight race to an uncertain finishing line.

Last Friday came the Government’s Economic Statement where Treasurer Chris Bowen and Finance Minister Penny Wong detailed the Government’s revised projections for revenue and expenditure, rather unsettling reading, the result of a volatile global economy that has resulted in large write-downs in revenue, and consequent severe cuts to expenditure. Among them was the already-announced modification to the Fringe Benefits Tax arrangements for motor vehicle use, which is designed to eliminate the rorting that results from the flat 20% salary package allowance for travel, one that is applicable no matter whether the vehicle is or is not used for business. The move has angered many businesses and charities, and the salary-packaging industry, and the Coalition has vowed to reverse it.

Then there was the increase in tobacco excise, clearly to boost its revenue, but importantly a health measure that in the past has always resulted in fewer smokers. Reflexly, Abbott was out commiserating with poor old pensioners used to enjoying their smokes and booze now having to pay more, but failing to acknowledge that many young people might now never start smoking. Implicitly, he was offering support for important Liberal Party donors – the tobacco industry.

Next was the establishment of a Financial Stability Fund to help in the case of future bank bailouts, to be funded by a 0.05% levy on deposits of up to $250,000. The banks and tax associations screamed blue murder. They soon had a sympathetic Abbott and Hockey smoothing their ruffled feathers, presumably thereby willing to forego that boost to their budget bottom line.

There were other measures to reduce spending, and funding was announced for some new items such as the PNG plan.

Within hours, Joe Hockey was on the airwaves literally spitting out his ‘crisis’ message: “The Budget is in freefall, the Government has lost control of the Budget, and it is losing control of the economy”. He stopped short of saying that the Government had bullied Treasury in making its estimates, but barely. Shadow Finance Minister Robb was soon insisting the Government did not know which levers to pull, and Mathias Cormann was on the TV berating the Government from every quarter. But none of them suggested what they would do differently. It was all destructive criticism; with not a skerrick of constructive advice.

Yet, it is the Coalition that is losing control. Losing control of its election agenda, losing control of its most telling strategies, losing control of its key points of difference from Labor. With its ‘carbon tax’ mantra deactivated, its asylum seeker policy neutralized, and its Gonski funding backflips now aligning it with Labor’s policy, what has it left? Abbott is a worried man. Some of his supporters too are worried.

Niki Savva, one of Abbott’s most sycophantic supporters, is clearly panicky. She writes: “Ultimately not all the credit for Rudd Reflux belongs to the media or to his selfie. The opposition deserves some for fluffing its initial responses to the PNG Solution and meandering hopelessly on Gonski. If it mucks up its handling of Bowen's statement and its own economic policy, it's pretty much over. Three strikes will count the opposition out and Kevin in.” When the likes of Savva write like this, the panic will soon permeate Coalition ranks and corrode the Abbott mind. His disintegration will move apace.

What do other Coalition backers say? Writing in The Australian this weekend, Peter van Onselen says: “In the ordinary course of events the Coalition would not be returned to power…because it hasn't developed an alternative vision for the nation. Even if Abbott found a sudden interest in, and stomach for, these policy scripts, his frontbench would struggle to implement the changes." Chris Kenny says: “Abbott's greatest weakness could well be that he is too timid.” There’s not much enthusiasm for Abbott there!

Abbott has already chickened out of a debate on the economy, leaving Rudd to make a comprehensive statement on the state of the economy at the Canberra Press Club alone. He has also backed away from a debate about asylum seekers. The man is scared and it shows. The best he can do is to habitually clutch to his chest his favourite Noddy book: "Our Plan – Real Solutions for all Australians" that he hopes will convince voters that he actually has a plan!

Abbott has an established reputation as a vicious attack-dog, a vacuous bully-boy, and a bad-tempered head kicker who hates losing. His arms outstretched, he sees the keys to The Lodge receding. He sees a dead cert turning into a tight contest. He sees his tactical weapons deactivated one after the other. He sees his options diminishing. He sees the popularity of his new adversary rising, the polls reversing, his chances evaporating.

He is angry, dismayed, uncertain, unable to struggle out of the slogan-driven rut that has been his home for three years, unable to reinvent himself. He looks tense and desperate. Rudd is playing with his mind, until today leaving him uncertain about the election date, uncertain about what Rudd will do next, uncertain about what he should do next. Uncertainty breeds anxiety and self-doubt. Both corrode. Disintegration follows: steady, then quickening, finally inexorable. It is now clear for all to see.

What do you think?

If you decide to ‘Disseminate this post’, emails will be sent to: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Julie Bishop, Chris Bowen, George Brandis, Tony Burke, Mark Butler, Bob Carr, Mathias Cormann, Mark Dreyfus, Joe Hockey, Greg Hunt, Ed Husic, Richard Marles, Scott Morrison, Christopher Pyne, Andrew Robb, Kevin Rudd, Tony Smith, Warren Truss, Malcolm Turnbull, Andrew Wilkie, Penny Wong and Nick Xenophon.

Have a go at these questions about asylum seekers

Is there any more vexed political issue than that of refugees seeking asylum in this country? It remains so despite the recent advent of the Refugee Resettlement Agreement with Papua New Guinea.

The refugee issue was politicized by Pauline Hansen, and readily taken up by John Howard with the ‘Tampa episode’ and his 2001 election pledge: “We will decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come.” Because commentators insisted it was that stand which got him over the line in what was shaping as a probable defeat, politicians on both sides quickly saw the political advantage of being ‘tough on asylum seekers’. Later Howard followed up with his ‘Pacific Solution’. In more recent times Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison have sought to exploit Howard’s line by highlighting every new boat arrival as a Labor failure, now ‘a national emergency’, every drowning as ‘blood on Labor’s hands’, and the dismantling of the Howard three point deterrent plan as a foolish Rudd mistake. Many in the nation’s electorates, especially those in Western Sydney, agree. It is their votes that Labor seeks to retrieve.

So we are stuck with this situation, redolent as it is with racial prejudice, sometimes stark xenophobia, and simmering anger directed at asylum seekers and towards any party that allows them to keep coming. This is inflamed by politicians and fanned by a moribund Fourth Estate desperate to retain its relevancy.

Mr Denmore puts it so well in his piece: The Australian Asylum: “There are two dimensions to the refugees issue. One is managing the problem itself - a relatively marginal one for a rich economy that leads the developed world on most economic metrics. The second dimension - and the trickier one - is the theatrics around the issue, a charade kept alive by attention-seeking sections of the news media and the frightened politicians they goad into one piece of policy knee-jerkery after another. The facts of the refugee situation – however many times they are raised – don't seem to register. What matters for the dying institutions of our news media is that this issue is an emotive, eyeball-grabbing one, encompassing age-old fears of brown skinned hordes shattering our cosy, white bread suburban lives. As such, it's tailor-made for endless re-jigging on the front pages of the Tele and the Hun.”

He goes onto say: “That the tabloid anger pendulum swings so shamefacedly from fanning fear of refugees to pleading for their humanity to calling for security crackdowns to castigating the government for the cost of security is neither here nor there. What's important in media terms is that this story is easy fodder for fulmination and vein-popping outrage in dead trees media and on talkback radio. Meanwhile, the refugee issue is manna for political parties desperately seeking to differentiate themselves and cover up the fact that most of the major issues we face are beyond the control of nation states acting on their own (climate change, the structure of the financial system and the global movement of people).

“None of this is to claim that finding policy solutions to the seaborne drift of asylum seekers is easy or that there are not costs involved - strategically, financially or morally. But it would help us all if we were spared the self-serving screeching of the popular media and the grandstanding of populist politicians who jump to its orders in the vague hope of appearing relevant.”

Having read many expositions on asylum-seekers, and having listened to countless politicians and journalists express their opinions about the situation and what ought to be done about it, I am struck with the disjointed way in which this seemingly intractable issue is approached. Every commentator seems to select an angle that suits his or her position, particularly since the introduction of the Regional Resettlement Agreement with the government of PNG. The Greens mouth ‘cruelty’, the Coalition ‘border protection’, and Labor ‘people smugglers’. Seldom do we have the benefit of a commentator who has looked at the problem from every angle, has analyzed each, and has drawn logical conclusions from that analysis. We get a ‘bits and pieces’ approach that too often reflects partisan positions. Predictably, politicians do this habitually, but we ought to expect better from commentators who are able to sit back and view the situation rather more dispassionately. Sadly they too often reflect a partisan bias, born of the media organization’s particular preference. Balanced, fair, factual analysis is virtually dead in the Fourth Estate, as Mr Denmore asserts. It has its own idiosyncratic commercial and ideological agendas to pursue.

Rather than attempting to give my take on the asylum-seeker issue, I though it might be more instructive to step back and detail some of the questions that need to be asked in arriving at a position. Some answers are given – in bold; most of the answers are yours to supply.

Have a go at these:

What is an asylum-seeker? What is a refugee?

There is a great deal of confusion about the difference between an asylum seeker and a refugee and often the terms are used interchangeably or incorrectly. An asylum seeker is someone who is seeking international protection but whose claim for refugee status has not yet been determined. In contrast, a refugee is someone who has been recognized under the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees to be a refugee. The Convention defines a ‘refugee’ as any person who: “... owing to well‐founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it …” More.

Has Australia an obligation as a signatory to the UNHCR Refugee Convention to engage with people seeking asylum?


Under the Convention, does Australia continue to have responsibility for finding a country for resettlement if the one to which a genuine refugee is sent cannot accept him/her?


How many refugees are there in the world today?

At the end of 2012 the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported that there were 15.4 million refugees worldwide. By contrast there were 28.8 million internally displaced persons (about twice as many people) at the end of 2012. More .

Is it illegal to seek asylum in Australia?

NO, no matter whether arriving by boat or air.

What proportion of people seeking asylum has arrived in Australia by boat?

Figures to 2011 give an idea: In 2008/09 16%; in 2009/10 47%; and in early 2010/11 44% of asylum seekers arrived by boats; the rest by air. Less than a half arrived by boat. More.

How does Australia rank in accepting refugees?

Australia accepts the third largest number of refugees (including refugees and other humanitarian entrants) for resettlement in the world after the USA and Canada. More.

What is Australia’s current intake under its Refugee and Humanitarian Program?

13,750 annually, to be increased to 20,000, and then possibly to 27,000. More.

Now for some questions for you to answer:

Should the intake be higher? If so, how much higher? Should there be a cap?

Is there an imperative to stop asylum seekers coming to Australia by small boats?

Does the loss of life at sea (around 1,000 in recent times) make this imperative stronger?

Do you believe most people in this country want to stop these boat arrivals and the drownings?

Is this our problem to solve alone, or is it a regional and global problem?

Is it reasonable to seek a regional solution that involves all nations in our region?

As a measure to dissuade asylum seekers from coming via boats, a recent Government decision is to disallow entry to Australia to boat arrivals that have no visa, and instead send them to PNG for settlement. Do you regard this as ‘cruel’ policy, as do the Greens? If so, why?

Whether or not you believe this policy is cruel, if an asylum seeker, armed with this knowledge, still chooses to arrive by boat, is this resettlement action by the Government cruel?

Put another way, is it ‘cruel’ to send people escaping persecution to PNG, when they knew that would be the case before they embarked on the boat?

Is life in PNG so bad that it is an act of cruelty to send people there?

If you believe so, given that residents of PNG live there themselves, what makes it such a cruel action to ask asylum seekers to live there too?

Why is it that so many objections to the RRA are being advanced, which throw doubt on the viability of catering for thousands of refugees in PNG, when the object of the exercise is to dissuade people from getting on boats in the first place?

Is Australia obliged to take into its own population those who demand to come here by boat, even if those people have been warned not to arrive in that way?

Is it fair to give admission to those who can afford to pay people smugglers for boat passage, while leaving the poor who cannot afford passage to languish for years in camps in transit countries? Is this consistent with Australia’s ‘fair go’ attitude? Is this consistent with the ‘no advantage’ rule now in place?

Are those who can afford to pay people smugglers for boat passage more deserving to come than the others who cannot?

Are those who can afford to pay people smugglers for boat passage more under threat? Do they have a more urgent and impressive ‘well‐founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion’, than others who cannot so afford?

Is it understandable that some Australians resent having what they feel is ‘a gun held to their head’ by people smugglers and those who buy their services, who seem to be saying: ‘we are coming whether you like it or not’?

Is it understandable that some Australians dislike seemingly well-off asylum seekers (for example from Iran) flying to transit countries and immediately buying passage to Australia by boat, while others wait for years in awful camps, (for example those from Burma) unable to buy themselves out?

Do you believe that the persecution, or fear of persecution, of Iranians, Iraqis, Afghans and Sri Lankans, for example, is worse that the persecution of Burmese or similar folk from our region?

Is there a case to be made for equity in managing the large number of different groups seeking asylum, a tenet of the current ‘no advantage’ approach?

Do you approve people seeking asylum purely for economic reasons – for a better life in this country?

Recognizing that some people have had to leave their country hurriedly without identification documents, do you find it acceptable that people seeking asylum deliberately destroy their identification documents in order make it difficult for Australian authorities to refuse asylum?

What action should be taken against those who destroy the identification documents?

What should happen to those not found to be genuine refugees? Should they be returned to their home country?

Is it understandable that some Australians resent asylum seekers arriving by boat uninvited, and then using our country’s resources provided at the expense of taxpayers?

Notwithstanding such feelings, do you endorse the Coalition’s rhetoric that we are being ‘invaded’, that our borders are ‘threatened’, and that the current state of arrivals constitutes a ‘national emergency’? If so, what is the threat?

Do you approve the Coalition’s just-announced ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, (now styled OpSoB) as a response to what the Coalition regards as ‘a national emergency’?

Is it also a ‘cruel’ policy?

Given that the Howard government turned around only four boats, do you believe that the Coalition’s policy of ‘turning the boats around, when it is safe to do so’ is operationally feasible and not a threat to the boats, their occupants, and Navy personnel? Does the ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ policy make this more feasible?

Do you believe that Howard government-style Temporary Protection Visas would diminish the flow of asylum seekers by boat?

While waiting for the processing of asylum claims offshore is understandably extremely frustrating, is it acceptable for asylum seekers in offshore processing centres to riot and destroy property?

What action should authorities take against the rioters?

Given that confinement on offshore venues for long periods waiting for processing is mentally taxing, what should be done to diminish the mental trauma? How is it possible to avoid mental disturbances when the ‘no advantage’ rule is being applied to those who came ahead of the many who still wait in camps in transit countries?

Is there any definitive way to avoid mental illness in detention? What more could/should be done to prevent it?

Would a degree of certainty about when asylum claims would finally be processed help, even if distant?

Would meaningful work and satisfying productivity postpone mental problems?

Should commercial endeavours be introduced into detention centres, as exists in prisons?

Should there be sporting, recreational and artistic activities introduced into detention centres?

Do you believe that children should not be sent for offshore processing?

Do you believe that unaccompanied children should not be sent for offshore processing?

What do you feel about asylum seekers deliberating sending unaccompanied children ahead of them on boats, so as to ‘get a foot in the door’ for the family?

If these children were exempted from removal to offshore processing, would that act as an incentive for people smugglers to operate in this way?

Do you approve of Australian citizens who have been granted asylum here, actively collaborating with people smugglers to bring fellow citizens here, as has been alleged recently?

Do you believe that immigration should be orderly, that although there is no hypothetical queue, there ought to be a mechanism for taking asylum seekers according to need and time of waiting?

Is there a case for substantially boosting processing facilities in transit countries and in countries of origin?

Could that reduce the numbers seeking to arrive by people-smugglers’ boats?

Given that the Greens seek a more ‘humanitarian’, less ‘cruel’ approach, and want an increased asylum and humanitarian intake, how do you believe they would like our immigration program to work?

Would the Greens impose any restrictions? If so what might they be?

How many who agree with the approach of the Greens have accommodated refugees in their own homes or in their communities? How has that turned out?

The above questions were designed to be neutral, rather than suggesting a particular answer.

If you were able to answer them comprehensively, would the answers assist you to devise a more satisfactory system for managing those seeking asylum in our country?

Do you believe that those who offer opinions about how to manage asylum-seekers ought to have answers to these questions, or have reflected on them?

Frankly, I am weary of reading or listening to pundits who take a myopic approach to the asylum-seeker problem, criticising this aspect or that, which is easy to do, yet who never make a comprehensive analysis of the multiplicity of factors, who never address its enormous complexity, and who thereby never come up with a wide-ranging assessment or a complete plan. The only group to have done this was the Houston Panel. Although they acknowledged the extraordinary complexity of the matter, they were able to develop a far-reaching plan, the so called ‘no advantage’ plan, one that proposed that those who came by boat and thereby short-circuited an orderly process, would not be advantaged over those who ‘waited their turn’. This operates at present.

Tony Abbott still relies on three word slogans as the Coalition’s solution, and now he has another: ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’. Scott Morrison uses verbal emesis to bully his way through interviews, regurgitating the same old words of condemnation of everything Labor has done, and praise for what the Howard government did with its tripartite approach, which he endlessly reminds us can be done again, presumably now via OpSoB. Together, they have condemned and opposed every move Labor has made to ameliorate the problem.

The Coalition’s Operation Sovereign Borders response to this complex matter is confined to a revised command structure that seems to be directed at better coordinating the ‘turn the boats around’ strategy. Where is its critical analysis of the multiple factors? Where is its detailed appraisal of this global problem that might lead to better understanding? All it continues to serve up is just more of the same simplistic approach, as if nothing has changed in the refugee situation in the last decade. ‘Turning the boats around when it is safe to do so’, which they insist can be done as it was done before, is offered irrespective of what maritime experts say and what the Indonesians think or say. The Coalition posits an ‘invasion’, a dire threat to our borders, a national emergency, and comes up with a military-style response.

The Greens represent the ‘bleeding heart’ elements in society. Sarah Hanson-Young and Christine Milne perpetually urge a more humanitarian approach; they eschew what they label as ‘cruelty’ toward the most vulnerable, those fleeing persecution. They urge a warm-hearted approach, a welcoming pair of arms, a line regarded by their supporters as laudable and praiseworthy, as indeed it is.

But there is never a moderating word, never a concession that not all seeking asylum can be accommodated, never a mention of whether there would need to be a limit, never a suggestion of how the practice of people smuggling might be countered, never a hint of how deaths at sea might realistically be avoided. It is all openhearted charity without apparent limit, without addressing the practical reality of hundreds of thousands of refugees seeking to come here, without tackling the problem of the people smugglers who are making a fortune out of the human misery in which they trade, men who would never willingly surrender their lucrative operations. It is all warmth without a hard-nosed element at all. There is never any comprehensive plan, such as they would be required to present were they in government. Never being in danger of being in power is their haven. Their legal confederates have joined with them by placing legal barriers in the way of moves that Labor has made, specifically the ‘Malaysia solution’, thrown out by the High Court.

For Labor’s part, it has struggled from one ‘solution’ to another. It has been forced by increasing arrivals to retreat from the ‘more humanitarian’ approach introduced by Kevin Rudd in 2008, required to explore regional approaches (East Timor and Malaysia) as the arrivals continued, forced to reintroduce most of the Howard’s strategies, eventually required to resort to an expert (Houston) panel to advise it, until finally Kevin Rudd was propelled to introduce the RRA with PNG. Even this option faces legal challenges and the difficulty of settling non-Melanesians in a Melanesian society.

At every turn Labor has met with resistance and criticism from the Greens, and trenchant opposition and obstruction from the Coalition, for whom it seemed the continuance of boat arrivals was a political plus.

I can offer no magic solution. I believe there is none without strong tripartisan support, the ongoing involvement of other nations in our region, and the development and implementation of a regional ‘solution’. Instead, as I did when I addressed this issue in Applying facts and logic in the asylum-seeker issue and again in What is the role of political blog sites?, I challenge those who oppose what Labor has done and is doing, what the Coalition proposes, and what the Greens seem to want, to come up with their own answers.

Any who insist on criticising what others are doing or proposing ought to tell us what THEY would do. I challenge any who attempt to do this, to do so only after answering the questions above, if they can.

If you decide to ‘Disseminate this post’, it will be sent to the following politicians: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Julie Bishop, Chris Bowen, George Brandis, Tony Burke, Mark Butler, Doug Cameron, Bob Carr, Jason Clare, Mark Dreyfus, Peter Dutton, Joel Fitzgibbon, Josh Frydenberg, Sarah Hanson-Young, Joe Hockey, Mike Kelly, Jenny Macklin, Richard Marles, Christine Milne, Scott Morrison, Judi Moylan, Robert Oakeshott, Brendan O'Connor, Christopher Pyne, Kevin Rudd, Philip Ruddock, Tony Smith, Warren Truss, Malcolm Turnbull, Andrew Wilkie, Tony Windsor, Penny Wong and Nick Xenophon.

Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott: two gentlemen politicians

It is not often that retiring politicians receive the lavish praise that has been heaped upon the Independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, praise so richly deserved.

In the turmoil of partisan politics where self-interest so often dominates, it was refreshing to witness the way in which these two gentlemen of politics placed the common weal ahead of any self-interest they may have had.

We may have never witnessed such levelheaded politics had there not been a hung parliament after the 2010 election. It fell to the Independents to decide who should govern: Julia Gillard and Labor, or Tony Abbott and the Coalition. Bob Katter soon declared his support for Tony Abbott, probably because his friendship with Kevin Rudd made it difficult for him to support his successor, Julia Gillard. Andrew Crook of the WA Nationals sided with the Coalition, and Greens Adam Bandt with Labor. Andrew Wilkie declared his hand when he rejected Tony Abbott’s promise of a billion dollars for a new teaching hospital in Hobart, an offer he considered to be irresponsible, an offer he believed was designed to benefit Abbott in his quest for prime ministership, rather than the people of Dennison. That left the count at 74 for each side. So it fell to Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott to make the decision about who should prevail. The way they went about making that decision will go down in our political history as an exemplar of sound and careful political judgement.

For seventeen agonizing days, the future governance of the nation swung in the balance. They were not going to be rushed – the final decision was too important. On 7 September 2010, they separately announced their decision to support Julia Gillard. Tony Windsor was brief. Rob Oakeshott took seventeen minutes to explain how he had reached his decision while edgy journalists waited impatiently to hear who he intended to support, characteristically more interested in who had won than the intellectual process of arriving at the decision. Finally, both said they would support Julia Gillard, giving her the 76 votes she needed to govern. He said it had been "an absolute line ball, points decision, judgement call."

The final thumbs-up decision and the explanation.

Oakeshott’s speech is worth replaying for its well thought-out approach to the decision he needed to make. Part1; Part 2. Here is Mark Davis’ account of that historic event. Here are some more images of that fateful day, ‘Independents’ Day’, courtesy of The Age.

Oakeshott emphasized that for them both stability in government was the main concern; they wanted one that would run its full term. The other requirement was that the government produced sound outcomes.

‘Stability’ and ‘outcomes’ were highlighted as essential requisites.

He stressed the need ‘to bring Australia together’, to unify. Divisive politics was anathema to them both. Therefore they looked for the party that presented the best chance to “work with us to keep parliament running as long as possible”. Both had previously been involved in minority parliaments in the NSW legislature. They had experienced how they could work. They had confidence that a prime minister with a sound legislative agenda, and a capacity to collaborate, would likely attract support sufficient to carry it out over the three-year term of the parliament. An Agreement to Form Government was drawn up with the Prime Minister.

Pressed later for more detail, both men said that they had more faith in Julia Gillard’s ability to manage a minority government than they had in Tony Abbott’s. They saw she had superior negotiating skills. They believed her when she said that she wanted the parliament to run its full term. In contrast, they felt strongly that Abbott wanted a quick return to the polls to install a ‘legitimate’ government, having already declared that a Gillard government would be ‘illegitimate’, a position from which he never retreated. They sensed he was not at all interested in a long-run parliament.

Yet they were aware that Abbott badly wanted to be prime minister, and would ‘do anything’ to get that prize in his hands, except, as Windsor later reported, ”to offer his arse, and he would consider even that”, so desperate was he! They reported that he was even prepared to introduce a carbon tax if that was one of their conditions, although he had ruled out any such notion early in the negotiations. They judged Abbott to be not ready for the high office he coveted. After three years of minority government, Windsor confirmed that view when he said that they had “probably done Tony a good turn by not handing it to him”, as clearly he was unready.

Oakeshott indicated that he and Windsor, both representing regional electorates, had been able to negotiate with Julia Gillard a good local package for their electorates, a good regional package that offered equity to regional areas, and a good national outcome. The NBN, climate change, mining and gas extraction, regional education and minimizing the chances of an early election, were crucial elements. They judged Julia Gillard as one who could successfully lead a minority government. Their judgement proved to be correct.

In reaching their initial decision, there were some parliamentary matters that were pivotal. They were interested in assuring ‘supply’ and ‘confidence’, and in lifting parliamentary standards and the quality of committee work.

Strongly supportive of the NBN, they recognized how essential it was for the development of regional business, and for its competitiveness. Armidale, at the centre of Windsor’s electorate of New England, was an early recipient of the NBN. Anecdotal stories soon emerged of how the NBN had benefitted businesses there, especially with the improved upload speeds it offered. Developing a plan for the management of water in the Murray-Darling system was a high priority to them both; they played a major role during committee work in achieving a ‘once in a century’ plan.

They were both convinced that man-made global warming was a reality and that urgent action was necessary to slow it down by reducing carbon emissions. They supported the notion of putting a price on carbon preparatory to moving to an emissions trading scheme. Oakeshott had the preservation of biodiversity at the top of his wish list. They could see that was Julia Gillard’s intent, which contrasted starkly with the Coalition’s Direct Action Plan, one that was supported neither by economists nor environmentalists as an appropriate answer to global warming. Both were prepared to say so, while most of the Fourth Estate avoided doing so.

They were keen to play down the notion that either party had a ‘mandate’ to govern, that one party had dominance over the other, that one party had been ‘endorsed’. Oakeshott emphasized how unimpressed they both were with the state of federal politics, stressed the value of strong independents, and highlighted the importance of private members’ bills. They underscored the need to be committed to the electorates, and for the electorates and the country as a whole to be the drivers for debate. They also proposed a plan for changes in how the House of Representatives worked, a streamlined Question Time, and the prospect of conscience votes on private members’ bills on controversial subjects such as gay marriage. Later they drew up an Agreement for a Better Parliament that reflected these changes, referred to as a ‘new paradigm’ for the parliament, which was publicized as facilitating a ‘kinder, gentler’ parliament, one that responded to the public’s wish for “leaders who ... concentrate on making this country a better place to live”.

Oakeshott described the wide range of politicians, treasury officials, federal departments, and stakeholders they had consulted, as well as Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, in what he described as an open and transparent process, one that enabled them to reach the decision “to guarantee confidence and supply to a Gillard Government, unless exceptional circumstances dictated otherwise”.

In line with their desire to improve parliamentary committee work, they have both played a central role.

Tony Windsor became a member of the following committees: Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry; Primary Industries and Resources; Regional Australia; Privileges and Members' Interests; and the Joint Select Committees on Australia's Clean Energy Future Legislation and Constitutional Recognition of Local Government. He contributed enormously to the Climate Change Committee. He was also a member of the Speaker’s Panel.

Rob Oakeshott was a member of these committees: House of Representatives Standing Committees on Education and Training; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs; Infrastructure and Communications, the Joint Statutory Committee on Public Accounts and Audit; the Joint Standing Committees on Foreign Affairs; Defence and Trade; Parliamentary Library; and National Broadband Network; Joint Select Committees on Cyber-Safety; Parliamentary Budget Office; Australia's Immigration Detention Network; Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples; and Broadcasting Legislation.

Together, through their committee work, they have had a particularly strong influence on deliberations about the NBN, climate change and carbon trading, the impact of coal seam gas exploration, regional Australia, the Murray Darling water plan, infrastructure, communications, broadcasting, indigenous affairs, and education.

Windsor took a special interest in coal seam gas and its impact on farming and the environment, and was heavily involved in the successful passage of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment that insisted on a proper independent scientific process for evaluating the impacts of coal seam gas and large coal mining developments, especially in prime farmland.

It has not been without its costs to them personally and professionally. They were subjected to biting criticism by Coalition members “for going against the wishes of their ‘conservative’ electorates in supporting a Labor minority government”. The fact that both New England and Lyne voters had convincingly chosen independents rather than conservatives, four times in the case of Tony Windsor and twice in the case of Rob Oakeshott, makes that criticism tenuous.

Abuse was directed to their electorate offices, presumably from angry Coalition supporters who felt they had been robbed of power that was rightfully theirs, but they reported that generally the people they met in the streets of their electorates were supportive of them. Early indications were that Tony Windsor was doing so well in the polls against Barnaby Joyce that Joyce was concerned he may have a battle on his hands. Later Windsor indicated he would not be contesting the seat because of health concerns: “I am experiencing some health issues which have yet to be resolved, and as much as I love this job I don’t want to die in it.” And anyway he felt he had other things that needed his attention – his family and his farming. Likewise, Rob Oakeshott felt his wife and young family of four deserved more of his time. For them, this oft-cited reason for retirement was not an excuse, but a genuine desire to leave the hothouse of intrigue, conflict, double-dealing and sabotage that is federal politics today, and attend to matters closer to home.

It is to their eternal credit that they stuck with Julia Gillard throughout, until her own party removed her. They said their loyalty was based on mutual respect earned as each adhered to the agreement they struck in 2010. They said she had not let them down - she had kept her side of the bargain. In turn, they did not let her down.

In a touching tribute to a wistful Julia Gillard, in his valedictory speech Rob Oakeshott told her he had tweeted her on the night of her replacement by Kevin Rudd: “Your father would have been proud of you”. In the same speech he wryly observed: ““I have been shocked, frankly, over the last three years, to meet ugly Australia and just to see the width and depth of ugly Australia.” Is it a surprise then that he would seek relief from the unremitting nastiness and ugliness that surrounded him for the life of the 43rd parliament?

What did they achieve? Virtually what they set out to achieve. The parliament ran full term, there was no motion of ‘no-confidence’ ever put, despite many threats by the Coalition, ‘supply’ was assured, and in the three years of the Gillard Government almost six hundred pieces of legislation were enacted with 87% bipartisan agreement. The crossbenchers directly altered 27 bills, and had the Government make changes to many others. It was the most productive parliament ever, the complete opposite of what was predicted by Tony Abbott, the Coalition, and much of the media, which preferred to characterize it as an incompetent, ineffectual, chaotic government.

Many major reforms were passed into law – a price on carbon leading to an ETS in 2015, the Murray-Darling water plan, the NBN, the NDIS, the Gonski education reforms being among the most significant. Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott were instrumental in facilitating all of them. They enabled a minority government to be spectacularly successful, even in the face of the most trenchantly negative and obstructionist opposition in recent history. Their role in successful governance has been immense. Not all their wishes reached fruition; for example, the debate on major tax reform was sidestepped, and doubts exist as to the future of the recognition of local government in the Constitution.

When the history of these two gentlemen of federal politics is written, it will make clear just how much they contributed, just how much they enabled, just how much their support of the Gillard Government has meant to our nation. Together they have made a major contribution to good governance.

They were the epitome of commonsense, rational advocacy, balanced judgement and gentlemanly behaviour, always free of the nastiness and spitefulness so often associated with partisan politics.

The hurly-burly of politics too often distracts from the achievements of politicians. When the shouting and tumult of the 43rd parliament finally dissipates, the true value of these two outstanding politicians will on be record for all to see.

We who have followed them with admiration for the last three years acknowledge their enormous contribution. They enjoy our deep respect. We extend to them both our heartfelt thanks and every good wish for the future.

The Stalking of Julia Gillard: Kerry-Anne Walsh. A Review

This is an enthralling book. It carries the telling subtitle: How the media and Team Rudd contrived to bring down the Prime Minister. For political tragics, it is a ‘must read’. For others who wonder what on earth goes on in the hallowed halls of Parliament House and the Canberra Press Gallery, it is a revealing exposé. It is literally a ‘page-turner’, one of the most illuminating books on Canberra politics that I have read.

Its author, Kerry-Anne Walsh, is a highly respected political journalist who spent twenty-five years in the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery, leaving it in 2009 after becoming disenchanted with political spin. She has been a columnist for several local and overseas papers, a producer of TV programs, and a panelist on the ABC’s Insiders and on Sky Agenda.

Ms Walsh kept a diary of the extraordinary time in federal politics from June 2011 to April 2013 during which the Gillard Government was in power. At the end there is a postscript in which 18 June is the date last mentioned, just two days before the two year campaign of sabotage of Julia Gillard and her government by what Walsh describes as ‘Team Rudd’ brought about her replacement by the one she had replaced three years and three days earlier.

Those who have followed federal politics closely will be familiar with every step of the stalking process. What Walsh does is to fill in for the reader the behind-the-scenes machinations in the hothouse that is Canberra politics. She exposes the complicity of the Press Gallery in every move made by Team Rudd. She names those who see themselves as influential ‘players’ in the process: insiders, confidants, king makers and destroyers, and documents their involvement. We know all those she names; the extent of their involvement though is a revelation.

It will not surprise you that Peter Hartcher emerges as perhaps the most determined Rudd supporter, one who despite his senior position as Sydney Morning Herald political and international editor, time and again seemingly discarded the tenets of balanced journalism to become a strident advocate for Rudd and ‘Team Rudd’, a would-be kingmaker who fashioned stories to be powerfully pro-Rudd, and who served as a conduit for every scrap of Team Rudd propaganda he was fed. It is my view that in doing so he damaged the principles of objective journalism, Fairfax media, and most of all himself. Walsh had this to say about Hartcher: “What now of journalists such as the Sydney Morning’ Herald’s Peter Hartcher, who promoted Rudd’s cause month after month? I emailed him questions about the ethics of his reportage and his commentary on the leadership issues, given his robust advocacy for Rudd. He responded that he ‘utterly’ rejected my premise that he had advocated for Rudd, ‘and, therefore, the questions predicated on it’.

There were some political journalists though that Walsh did not name: “…two of Aunty’s most respected political journalists were said to be privy to the inside running on Rudd’s battle plan for his February 2 challenge weeks before the leadership ballot, yet they chose to keep this to themselves.” I wonder who they were: Chris Uhlmann, Barrie Cassidy, Tony Jones, or someone else?

Writing about the never-ending succession of deadlines set by Team Rudd or media pundits by which Julia Gillard would be gone, Walsh says: ”When one deadline fails to eventuate, it should be an embarrassment for a gullible media; when dozens fail to materialize over two years, it’s been a massive, humiliating con…We in the Fourth Estate have much to answer for.” She goes on to write: “As the ABC’s political editor at 7.30, Chris Uhlmann, remarked frankly after the day of high farce: [the day of the aborted 2013 Rudd challenge] ‘The media has played a role in this, and it’s for others I guess to parse how well or how badly the media has done. There’s not a shadow of doubt that the media has been used to help build momentum, to help build a sense of chaos, particularly this week. And anytime it looked like it was falling off, there was someone else [from Team Rudd] out and about…There is absolutely no doubt the Rudd forces have been using the media quite cleverly for some time now.”

These are revealing admissions from an insider of a reality that those of us in the Fifth Estate suspected for a long while. Yet the wider electorate is likely still largely oblivious of the media’s grossly manipulative behaviour.

Walsh confirms what we have been saying here for ages when she writes: “The press gallery can be a beast that feeds on itself. Apart from attending the occasional press conference, Question Time or ministerial interview, gallery journalists are shackled to their desks. Their company is each other; their sounding boards are each other; their judgements about the political angle of the day are formed out of exchanges with each other. But the competition is fierce for a headline story – to be the agenda-setting pundit, or to be the first online to repeat a whisper. The added dimension for journalists nowadays is the voracious appetite for novelty that the twenty-four-hour online story beast demands. Coupled with the sacking by newspapers of experienced sub-editors and fact-checkers, journalists find themselves in a dangerous new space of unvetted reporting. In this climate, the anonymous quote – once used only to protect legitimate deep throats or to give nuance to a story – became the most popular bedrock for Gillard-Rudd leadership stories that dominated headlines and threatened the PM and her government. Every rule in the handbook of good journalism was broken.”

Later Walsh writes: “Over the last few years there have been serious reporting mistakes, gross errors of judgements, biased commentary and empowering of Team Rudd’s agenda. When the house of cards collapsed – twice – those journalists remained at their desks. And they all pull handsome salaries; they are paid more than a backbencher in many cases, and among the upper echelons as much as ministers. But while ministers are forced into abject mea culpas and apologies for mistakes, we in the fourth estate simply waltz on to the next project without acknowledging our errors. The media holds politicians up to the highest possible standards of behaviour. Not even human error or a slight slip of the tongue escapes our harsh judgements; the echo of ridicule about Gillard’s mispronunciation in April 2011 of ‘hyperbole’, for instance, still reverberates. Something has to give.”

Indeed, something ought to give. But will it, given the dilapidated and steadily collapsing state of the Fourth Estate, its degraded state of journalism, its clearly partisan orientation, and the political and commercial intent of its owners? Sadly, the answer seems to be NO!

Let’s now see what Walsh has to say about the polls: “The fortnightly Newspoll published by The Australian, the monthly AC Nielsen poll published in Fairfax newspapers, and the ad hoc Galaxy polls published in News Limited tabloids are treated by journalists as more important when assessing the government’s performance than its achievements or policies. Yet these polls are at best arbitrary snapshots of the public’s mood, tiny random samples of a voter’s reflexive reaction to events of the day – reactions that are strongly influenced by the media’s portrayal of the way the government is faring. And the way the media interprets the polls influences the next poll – constant cries that the government is wretched and doomed, is led by a wretched and doomed leader, affect the perception the voting public has of the government and its prime minister. Journalists who habitually ply statistics to promote the case that a government or its leader is terminal when there are months, even years, before an election are engaging in fraudulent misrepresentation. They are conning the public.”

Continuing with her appraisal of polls, Walsh writes: “These days the regular published newspaper polls concentrate on voting intentions alone, and reporters simply look back at political events of the previous fortnight and draw conclusions about the issues that have affected the public mood – even if there is no proven connection. They then peer into their crystal balls and declare that, based on their deductions and the numbers in front of them, it spells doom or success at an election that can be the political equivalent of light years away. Yet the future is full of events, circumstances, people, twists and turns that will affect and maybe change voters’ opinions of their elected representatives. Because the headline results are circulated the night before, so as to maximize a particular newspaper’s bang for its bucks, the polls are absorbed and spat out by television and radio from dawn the next day. The conclusions of those journalists and commentators who interpret the polls frame the political discourse for the day, sometimes for forty-eight hours, and are echoed in the news analyses from other media outlets.

“Independent polling analyst Andrew Catsaras is appalled by how the polls are often interpreted, and that the interpretation is then mimicked elsewhere. Even polls that show no change, or changes within the 3 per cent margin of error are splashed around by the commissioning organization. The Australian, for example, is brilliant at prominently running reams of copy on polls that haven’t shifted, or only shifted slightly, setting an artificial news agenda for the day. ‘The papers that spend money on these polls need to make news stories out of them, even if there’s nothing to report’, Catsaras tells me. ‘The interpretation is often distorted – if they want to promote a leadership story, they can do it. What is a statistical variation can be interpreted or spun around something that has occurred in the political world in the previous fortnight, even if there is no connection at all.’

Her final words on polls are these: “Many senior politicians privately anguish over the influence Newspoll and The Australian have on power plays and the standing and conduct of governments and opposition, but they feel helpless to take on what is now treated as an omniscient part of the political infrastructure. They also need to keep News Limited onside; over the years The Australian’s editors, using polls as its principle weapon, have worked deftly to erode the standing of governments or leaders they don’t like or don’t deem fit to govern.”

There you have it, from an experienced insider. There you have what we have been saying here for years about political journalists, polls, the media owners, indeed about the whole Fourth Estate. A truly satisfying aspect of Kerry-Anne Walsh’s book is the confirmation of so much of what we have known or suspected and written about for so long.

It is to be hoped that in the next edition she adds an afterword that covers the final two days of the Gillard government, how Team Rudd finally succeeded, and how we lost an outstanding leader, Julia Gillard.

Seldom have I read a political exposition so revealing, so informative, so full of insights, so readable, so lucidly written. This review can but touch upon some of its highlights; the book itself needs to be read to unearth its treasure trove. Anyone interested in federal politics that buys a copy, or downloads the E-book version onto a reader, will not be disappointed.

The Stalking of Julia Gillard: How the media and Team Rudd contrived to bring down the Prime Minister, Kerry-Anne Walsh, Allen & Unwin, 2013, RRP$29.99.

An accolade for Julia Gillard: a fine prime minister

Wondering what word I should use in the title to best capture my opinion of our first female prime minister, now sadly at the end of her period in federal politics, I have chosen ‘fine’. Of high quality, clear, pure, refined, delicate, subtle, exquisitely fashioned, elevated, capable of delicate perception or discrimination, excellent, of striking merit, good, dignified, are among the many synonyms of ‘fine’. Each on its own portrays how admirers of Julia Gillard see her.

There are other superlatives that apply to this extraordinary woman: courageous, resilient, persistent, tough, a fighter, focused, intelligent and hard working, an accomplished negotiator, a high achiever, one who gets things done. But there are other softer terms: gracious, dignified, poised, good-humoured, friendly, easy-going, relaxed, composed, fond of children, the aged, and the disabled. Another apt adjective is articulate.

How can I justify these laudable descriptors?

Let’s start with the last – ‘articulate’.

There are some who would dispute this, claiming that she could not get her message across, was unable to ‘cut through’, could not convey ‘what she stood for’, her ‘narrative’. This has always been a mystery to me.

How many times did she say that she stands for fairness and opportunity for all, opportunity for all to have a great education, a good job, a rewarding occupation built on a sound education? How many times did she say that she wanted a fairer workplace? How often did she talk about the need for pay equity, paid parental leave and better superannuation?

How many times did she speak about a National School Curriculum, the MySchool website, NAPLAN, and the Gonski reforms for fairer school funding?

How many times did she say she wanted a strong economy to support jobs and growth? Did you hear her say that she wanted to share the profits of mining across the community? How many times did she say that she wanted super fast broadband by way of the NBN to make Australia internationally competitive? How often did she emphasize the need to lift productivity? How often did she say that she wanted to improve road, rail and ports infrastructure? How many times did she say that she wanted an ETS to limit global warming? How often did she urge the development of alternative energy sources?

How many times did she say she wanted a solution for the Murray-Darling water system? How often did she say that she wanted a regional solution to the asylum-seeker problem?

How many times did she say she wanted a better health care system, one that catered for the increasing number of aged, mentally impaired, and the disabled? How many times did you hear her advocate an NDIS? Did you hear her talking about the dangers of alcopops and the need for plain packing on cigarettes?

Did you hear her advocating a Royal Commission into institutional child abuse?

You all heard her say these things over and again.

Where was the Canberra Press Gallery? Asleep, focussed on the trivial, blind to the central issues. Or were journalists simply so spellbound with groupthink that they ‘heard’ only what they wanted to hear, heard only what confirmed them and their editors in their collective view that she had no narrative, and stood for nothing. There were just a few who were not infected with the same groupthink, but the majority drowned their voices out. Sheer ineptitude or malevolent intent are the only plausible explanations for the Fourth Estate’s incompetence.

To me Julia Gillard was articulate; I heard clearly what she said, I understood what she stood for, and I was satisfied and pleased.

Was she able to achieve everything embodied in her narrative? No, there is still unfinished business, but she did achieve an enormous amount in just three years.

Her Government was the highest performing government in Australian political history with around six hundred pieces of legislation passed, many of them visionary reforms.

This is not the place for an exhaustive list, but here’s a glimpse of her achievements and that of her government:
Removal of WorkChoices, and legislating the Fair Work Act, PPL, and better superannuation and child care.
Pay equity for lower paid workers, mostly women.
Placing a price on carbon pollution, leading to an ETS in two years.
Implementing renewable energy initiatives to contribute to carbon reduction targets.
Introducing a minerals resource rent tax to share mining super profits across the community.
Sustaining a growing economy, the best in the developed world, during the most severe financial crisis for over seventy years, and the creation of a million jobs.
Adjusting pensions, carbon compensation, tax cuts and the school kids bonus.
Instituting infrastructure development: NBN, ports, roads, rail.
Introducing a package of health reforms: in hospitals, community health, aged, mental and cancer care, plain packaging of cigarettes, and healthcare administration.
Completing the first Murray-Darling water plan in a century.
Development of the ‘Australia in the Asian Century' White Paper.
Enhancement of relationships with the US, China and Indonesia.
Bringing about ground-breaking school education reforms culminating in the Gonski reforms for fairer school funding, and increased university places.
The introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (DisabilityCare Australia), a crowning achievement.

She has set in place monumental reforms to vital parts of our national edifice, the likes of which we have never seen before. She has bequeathed these to our nation. This will be her legacy, a mantle she can wear with pride.

All of these accomplishments have taken place in a minority parliament where every move had to be negotiated with several parties, where many were fiercely resisted by the Coalition and in several instances by the Greens, where negotiating skills were paramount, and where obstruction and delaying tactics were daily barriers to progress. Julia Gillard achieved all this because of her persistence, her toughness, her patience, her courage and her determination to get done those pivotal reforms and this essential legislation, all focussed on making Australia an even more prosperous nation, one that was “stronger, smarter and fairer” to use her own words.

It is not just what she achieved that is so praiseworthy, it is the circumstances in which she did so, the environment she had to endure.

Has there ever been a prime minister who has had to cope, day after day, with the toxic, poisonous environment that enveloped her? There is no need to elaborate at length. You know it all.

Day after day the Opposition Leader and his Coalition colleagues heaped upon her personal abuse, contempt, vitriol, and nastiness. She was attacked with demeaning words that revealed disdain, disrespect and derision, often with sexist innuendo, until one day she could take no more. The feisty Julia burst out and flayed Tony Abbott with that memorable rebuttal; one captured on YouTube to the delight of two million viewers and women the world over.

Unremittingly, she was debased in the media, by the vile Pickering, the contemptible shock jocks Alan Jones and Ray Hadley, and in her last interview, the despicable Howard Sattler. The mainstream media put out material every day that condemned her actions, ridiculed her ideas, criticized her every move, and found fault with her demeanour, her voice, her dress and her body shape, but seldom ever gave her any credit. The malicious Andrew Bolt and Piers Akerman led the charge. The Murdoch media, joined latterly by Fairfax media, and sadly by elements of the ABC, clearly wanted her out of office and Tony Abbott’s Coalition in. Almost every news item portrayed that, sometimes subtly, but often stridently. The Press Gallery condemned what they characterized as her inability to get her message out, even her good messages, while steadfastly refusing to give them any oxygen.

Then there was the persistent sabotage of some in her own party from the moment she took office. Kevin Rudd and his supporters ran a relentless campaign of erosion of her authority, engaged the media disgracefully to pursue their agenda, and used poor polling to push its case for a change of leader. It is possible for strong people to endure for a long while despite life’s ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, but internal hatred and disloyalty eventually takes its corrosive toll, as it did on 26 June when her colleagues, some of them previously loyal compatriots, turned on her and ousted her.

To me this was an unforgivable act of infamy and treachery that will forever stain the history of Labor.

The Victorian Women's Trust agrees. Last Friday, it placed full-page advertisements in four Australian newspapers praising Julia Gillard's achievements and condemning both Labor and the Liberal parties for their actions over the past three years; Kevin Rudd for orchestrating a treacherous ‘seek-and-destroy’ mission against Julia Gillard, and Tony Abbott for his opportunistic appeals to people's prejudices.

Should you need more evidence about the poisonous environment in which PM Gillard had to work, do read The Stalking of Julia Gillard: How the media and Team Rudd contrived to bring down the Prime Minister by Kerry-Anne Walsh (Allen & Unwin, 2013), a lucid account of all the forces pitted against her.

That Julia Gillard survived for three long years in the face of this tripartite hostility: from the Opposition, the Fourth Estate and her own colleagues, signals her strength of character, her resilience and her toughness. The way she departed showed for all to see, her poise, her grace and her gentleness.

There are many other attributes of Julia Gillard that I could explore, but I will end with her delightful personality. It would not have been surprising if she had become ‘bitter and twisted’ in the face of all the personal abuse and denigration that was heaped upon her every working day. But she retained her equanimity. Will we ever forget that marathon press conference where the Press Gallery finally exhausted itself asking her question after question about her days at Slater and Gordon twenty years ago until they had no more? Despite her despair of the Canberra Press Gallery, evidenced by her admonition: “Don’t write crap; it can’t be that hard”, she patiently took every question and ended smiling at them, as she had begun.

It was when she interacted with children, the disabled, the aged, and indigenous folk that gave us the most penetrating look into her soul, her inner being.

She was always smiling, often laughing with her infectious chuckle, always ready to embrace those around her, always concerned about the welfare of others, exhibited by her concern for the safety of Tony Abbott at the time of the Canberra restaurant ‘siege’ by aboriginal activists on Australia Day.

Despite all the visceral nastiness, the sexist taunts, the media vitriol, the Abbott attack dog snarling at her day after day, the disingenuousness and condemnation coming at her from every direction, the treachery in her own ranks, the ugly images painted by the cartoonists and the vile words of the shock jocks, she was able to smile, able to bounce back showing no desire for retribution, finally able to relinquish the most important political position in the nation with dignity, poise, and composure, and then sit on the back bench with a wistful smile on her face and with tears in her eyes as Rob Oakeshott told her in his valedictory speech that he had tweeted her on the night she was replaced: ‘Your father would have been proud of you’.

And so are we.

Thank you Julia.

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Who will Newspoll kill off next?

During this week past we saw Newspoll: The Killing Machine in lethal action. Ironically, it was her own party members who took the ammunition from Newspoll, aimed it at Julia Gillard’s heart, and killed her politically. Although polls are no more than a snapshot of public opinion, they have again become the determiner of the fate of a political leader. They are killing machines.

Politicians are obsessed with polls, place blind faith in their capacity to predict election results although they have no predictive value three months from an election, and have once more used them to make decisions about who is best equipped to lead them to victory. Writing in The Hoopla, Gabrielle Chan says: “It was the polls that fed the Rudd monster – the same polls that slew the beast in the beginning.

How have we got to where we are? As this is a multilayered issue, let’s peel back the layers and take a look at what’s underneath.

For a long while now, Newspoll, and indeed most of the other polls of voting preference and personal approval, have carried importance they do not deserve. Pollster Peter Lewis of Essential Vision tells us: "A poll never predicts the future. Anyone who says they know what the future holds is deluded". Aggregated polls that show trends are more useful though.

The polls have been adverse for Labor and Julia Gillard for a long while; they did not arrive out of a clear blue sky. They began falling when the Rudd saboteurs, bridling at the memory of Rudd’s abrupt and savage removal because of falling polls three years ago, began undermining the newly appointed leader, Julia Gillard. They derailed her 2010 election campaign at its very outset when they leaked damning information to Laurie Oakes who confronted her with it at the end of a National Press Club speech. The polls that began promisingly for her and Labor immediately after she became PM fell, and continued to fall. This result was a hung parliament and a minority government.

Because through most of the life of the Gillard Government the polls have been persistently unfavourable for her and Labor, their importance has been unreasonably amplified. Despite the doubts professional pollsters have expressed about the validity and reliability of opinion polls, media commentators have used them over and again to predict electoral disaster for Labor – a ‘wipeout’ that would reduce Labor to a ‘rump’. Politicians believed them. Labor has been dismayed and depressed for many months. Convinced that the commentators were right, Labor parliamentarians have agonized for a long while about what to do. The Rudd saboteurs became more and more determined to strike when the time was right to reinstate their man, whom they believed would give Labor a better chance.

As more and more Labor politicians became convinced that they must act to counter this existential threat, they reached a conclusion that the action needed was a change of leader, because no matter what else they had tried, the polls remained poor. Their apprehension got the better of them last Wednesday. Precipitated by a mysterious petition circulating among members, they used poor polling to insist on a Caucus meeting and thereby to remove their leader, Julia Gillard, believing the alternative, Kevin Rudd, would lift their rating.

The validity of that decision seemed to be borne out almost immediately by a Morgan Poll taken the evening of the change of leader. Gary Morgan documents it thus: Big swing to the ALP after Rudd returned as leader tonight. ALP 49.5% (up 5%) cf. L-NP 50.5% (down 5%) – but will it be enough? This special snap poll on Federal voting intention was conducted on the evening of June 26, 2013 via SMS interviewing after the result of the ALP leadership ballot was announced at 8 pm, among an Australia-wide cross-section of 2,530 Australian electors aged 18+, where of all electors surveyed a low 0.5% did not name a party. A national ReachTEL poll last Thursday, and a subsequent poll of selected seats in Sydney and Melbourne, and this morning’s Galaxy Poll showed a similar boost to the Labor vote.

Commenting on ABC 24 about the Morgan Poll, John Stirton, Research Director of Nielsen Polls, when asked whether polls were dictating who should be leader of our nation, answered that regrettably that seemed to be the case. They did so three years ago in the case of Kevin Rudd, and last week it was Julia Gillard. Stirton expressed the hope that this will not be the case in future. Even pollsters admit that this is a misuse of polls. He estimated that Labor could improve by up to ten points in primary votes with the change to Kevin Rudd, but questioned how long this would last. He felt that it might taper off near the election date, no matter when this was.

So here’s the rub: no matter how many warnings professional pollsters have given about the danger of using polls for decision making because of their lack of predictive power, media commentators have ignored the warnings and have used them to make predictions day after day, month after month. Politicians have lapped up what they have said and have used their predictions to make some of the most drastic decisions imaginable, such as changing leaders. It amazes me that seasoned politicians have allowed themselves to be captured so profoundly by the polls and their media spruikers. Then again, they may have been aware that they have been swept along by all the hype that polls spawn, but were fearful that as bad polls create more bad polls and generate a bandwagon effect, a self-perpetuating prophesy, voters might have become convinced that Labor had no hope and that they ought to back what the polls are indicating is the hot favourite, the Coalition.

But there’s more to this multilayered issue. Why have the polls, which have precipitated this crisis, been so consistently poor for Labor and Julia Gillard? The answer hides beneath another layer. Let’s peel it back.

As soon as Julia Gillard became Prime Minister, a concerted campaign began to demonize her. Built on what Opposition Leader Tony Abbott labeled a ‘lie’, and a ‘broken promise’ when she introduced a price on carbon despite her ‘no carbon tax’ pledge, shock jock Alan Jones coined ‘Ju-liar’, said she should be put in a hessian bag and dumped at sea, and arranged ‘carbon tax rallies’ that featured ‘Ditch the Witch’ and ‘Bob Brown’s Bitch’ banners in front of which Tony Abbott stood with two female colleagues. This was just the start of the demonization. The Fourth Estate took up the theme and inflamed it day after day, month after month, year after year. The Murdoch media was particularly venomous, intent on using the demonization of the PM to derail her Government and the Labor Party. I will not tire you with more details; you know them well. This was the genesis of PM Gillard’s unpopularity and the poor showing of Labor in the polls. If the media continually berates a leader, criticizes virtually everything she does, paints over and again a picture of her as an incompetent liar, in classic Goebbels fashion the people eventually believe it. When that picture is reinforced by Tony Abbott at every Question Time, at every parliamentary doorstop, at every visit to a factory or a shopping mall, when he repeatedly damages her credibility by insisting her Government is illegitimate, it become the given truth for most of the populace.

Given that after years of demonizing our first female PM, who has been categorized as a lying, incompetent witch, one warranting hate and loathing, it ought not be surprising that her standing in the community is poor, that her disapproval is so much higher than her approval ratings. A Salem witch trial of Julia Gillard has been going on for ages in the minds of many voters, and they have judged her guilty. Listen to the vox pops! Tony Abbott and his Fourth Estate sycophants have been spectacularly successful in prosecuting the trial of this ‘Canberra witch’.

There is another media issue, the old chestnut of Julia Gillard being unable ‘cut through’, to get her message across, to let people know what she ‘stands for’. Pundits ask why she is not ‘resonating with the community’. It is incredible to me that over and again media personalities repeat these accusations when it is the media itself that is largely responsible for this state of affairs. If there are parallel events, one about a major reform the Government has legislated, and the other about a trivial issue, it is the trivial that wins out every time. The media castigates her for being a poor communicator, of failing to tell the people the good things her Government is doing, and then steadfastly refuses to give these things any prominence. It is her glasses, or her hair, or her jackets, or her tripping over, or her photo in Women’s Weekly that gets on the front page, while details of vital reforms, or the great economic state of our nation, are relegated to page seven. Yet the media has the temerity to criticize her inability to ‘cut through’. What hypocrisy! Or perhaps it is simply blindness to its own role. Maybe though it is deliberate media disingenuousness.

I can hear some of you saying: here he is blaming the media again. You are right. I am blaming the media because they are manifestly blameworthy. Only someone blind to what is going on could conclude otherwise. But this is not to say that PM Gillard and her Government are blameless. Moves have been made that have not turned out well; judgments have not been universally correct; ideas have not always been brilliant. That ought not surprise us given the complexity of governing in a minority parliament. Yet it is one in which around six hundred pieces of legislation have been passed with 87% bipartisan support, leaving just 13% in dispute; where major reforms have been enacted in education, health and disability, communications, infrastructure, water, defence, industrial relations and paid maternity leave, and important advances have been made in international relations, all with the oversight of PM Gillard. Yet she is portrayed as an incompetent Canberra witch.

There is another aspect – the gender issue. I do not intend to labour this here. It is well documented in the writings of Anne Summers, author of The Misogyny Factor, and writers on The Hoopla such as Gabrielle Chan. There is no doubt that being a female has made political life much harder for Julia Gillard. It seems that many men in this country cannot abide a female PM; they are unable to adjust to a female being in charge, when it has always been a male. It’s a man’s world after all!

So it is in the deepest recesses of this multi-layered issue that the core cause of the poor polling lives and festers – a virulent and persistent media onslaught against our first female PM the like of which we have not seen before, which has led to a level of demonization and deprecation once reserved for the Salem witches.

To recap, beginning from the core of the issue, the layers are: denigration and demonization of PM Gillard, leading to the creation of a damaging image of her in the minds of the electorate, leading to poor polling, leading to a media prediction that electoral disaster lies ahead with Julia Gillard as PM, leading to this prediction being embraced by Labor parliamentarians, leading to the radical action of removing Australia’s first female PM and replacing her with what the polls say is an electorally popular male.

This is the rationale behind the move to replace her, but the modus operandi of the Rudd saboteurs has been both destructive and despicable. For Labor members to deliberately and surreptitiously undermine a Labor Government and its leader over a three year period, and to sometimes publically ridicule her, is unforgivable disloyalty. I’m thinking of the smirking Joel Fitzgibbon, and the blustering Kim Carr and Doug Cameron. And then to follow this with attempt after attempt to dislodge PM Gillard, at first abortive, and finally successful, is contemptible. It is distressing that this level of treachery has been rewarded. I deplore these actions and hope I will never see such subversion, disloyalty and destructiveness again.

Those of us who have supported Julia Gillard so fervently are appalled at the way she has been treated, and lament her fate. We have lost an outstanding politician, and a strong and steadfast female warrior. We commiserate her untimely exit from public life and hope she will reappear in another influential role that will engage her outstanding talent and her strength of character. We shall miss her bubbling personality, her strength, her courage, her resoluteness, her devotion, her graciousness, her capacity to get things done against the odds and bring about much needed traditional Labor reforms, and her determination to stand up for women’s rights.

Let’s return now to the subject of this piece: Who will Newspoll kill off next? If polls have destroyed two Federal leaderships in the last three years, is that where the destruction will stop? Who else might Newspoll kill?

This piece postulates that other Federal leaders are vulnerable. What if the polls reverse after Rudd’s installation, and Labor stocks rise or even surpass that of the Coalition? With time running down to the election, how will Coalition members feel about their leader, Tony Abbott? Will they continue to believe that he can deliver them victory? What happens as his popularity slips and falls below that of Rudd as preferred prime minister? He has been unpopular with the voters for three years now with his unpopularity exceeding his popularity, although lately his popularity had picked up a little. But what if that now worsens? There are other leaders in the wings, most notably Malcolm Turnbull, who consistently has been more popular than Abbott, and recently preferred by twice as many voters as Abbott. When would Coalition members, like their Labor counterparts, feel they ought to ditch Abbott for Turnbull? It would be a big reversal of their loyalty to Abbott, but if such reversal can occur in Labor circles, why not in the Coalition?

The recent poll results will already be creating uncertainty and doubt in Coalition minds. Minders will be reviewing Abbott’s messages, perhaps asking whether the three word slogans will do during the election campaign. Abbott will be re-groomed, given some new words he can repeat from memory, words that are memorable, although meaningless because of their lack of specificity. Minders will fret about how Abbott will manage in a vigorous debate with Rudd on serious policy issues, a debate Rudd has already invited on economic issues. Rudd has panache that Abbott lacks, as well as policy smarts, which Abbott doesn’t enjoy. Because Abbott has avoided solid policy work, preferring mantras that he repeats like a Buddhist monk, policy debates promise to be a big problem for him and the Coalition. Close observers have recognized for ages his policy paucity as a major vulnerability; now it threatens to be exposed for all to see, for voters to see his vacuity. How long would it take for the electorate to have their eyes opened, and their approval of him plummet?

As last week came to an end, while Kevin Rudd was in full flight at a media conference on Friday, answering dozens of questions from a rowdy bunch of journalists, Coalition minders were scrambling to prepare a response to the emergence of another Rudd Prime Ministership. Tony Abbott, Julie Bishop and Warren Truss were sent out to recite disparaging statements about Rudd, all intended for the airwaves. They sounded pathetic. How much impact such negative stuff will have, especially when Rudd is now enjoying positive acceptance from much of the electorate, is debatable.

I can see a wave of panic spreading across the Coalition camp as they realize that they are now in for a close contest at the election and a challenging combatant to cope with beforehand. I can see Tony Abbott and his minders wondering how to deal with a resurgent Kevin Rudd, how to counter his newly-won popularity, how to respond to his exuberant rhetoric, and with a deep feeling of apprehension, how to match him in a policy debate.

I can imagine the sinking feeling that will oppress their souls as they look at each new poll, and most of all, the giant killer Newspoll, to see how they are faring.

I can see the Honourable Leader of her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, Anthony John Abbott, with his hands eagerly outstretched to grasp the coveted keys to The Lodge, fearfully wondering if he will see his long-held dream evaporate, wondering if HE will be the one that Newspoll will kill off next.

What do you think?

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Newspoll: The Killing Machine

In the following thirty-six hours the next Newspoll will be published. If it is as poor a result for Labor as was last week's Nielsen Poll, the leadership frenzy will reach an even more feverish pitch. Frantic media packs will jostle to assail every politician entering and leaving parliament, thrusting microphones into their faces, and insisting they declare their allegiance to Julia Gillard or Kevin Rudd, or at least take a punt on whether a leadership challenge is on, and who is likely to win. The words uttered by the key players will be analyzed endlessly for nuance. Every news bulletin on radio or TV will be embellished with phrases such as 'another bad poll for Labor has renewed/fuelled/rekindled/heightened leadership speculation', with clips of comments from Labor politicians at doorstops, clips of Tony Abbott, with nodding supporters in the background, sagely reminding us how dysfunctional, divided and chaotic the Gillard Government is, and Christopher Pyne emitting his usual venom outside Parliament. It is as predictable as the sun rising in the East.

The press will have a field day. Dennis Shanahan will be emboldened to predict an even greater electoral disaster for Labor, Paul Kelly will be more pontifical than usual in telling us why, and other News Limited journalists will report the findings gleefully, and in every sordid detail. The predictive value of the poll will be assumed, as it has been for two years now, and to give the result some statistical authenticity, the result will be stated to be 'outside the margin of error'.

Should the result be much the same as the last Newspoll, the media response will be less strident. What Labor could expect would be one of Shanahan's favourite phrases: 'flat-lining', or words to the effect that Labor 'has failed to get a bounce out of Gonski', or any other piece of legislation the pundits believe ought to have given it one.

But if the result were to be better for Labor than Nielsen or the last Newspoll, it would need to be vastly better to attract any acknowledgement of an improvement. And to counter any better result, we will be reminded that the Coalition 'still has an election-winning lead', or that ‘it would still win in a landslide', or that 'Labor would still lose (insert number) of seats at an election, should it be held today'.

So whatever happens this coming week with Newspoll, the result will be painted as bad for Labor, and should it be much, much better by any chance, it will be categorized as a 'rouge poll'.

Nothing I have asserted so far will come as a surprise to any reader. I write these words simply to underscore the extraordinary influence polls of voting intention and personal approval have on our political dialogue through all forms of the Fourth Estate. They actually create the dialogue.

This coming week, Newspoll will be used as a killing machine, as it has been for many years.

Of course it was used as a killing machine in the dying days of the Howard Government, although not as powerfully as it is now. And let's acknowledge that it is not the only one. The Nielsen poll too has potency as a killing machine, as we saw last week. It precipitated a furious frenzy in the Canberra Press Gallery that went on for several days, until it became apparent that no leadership challenge was in the offing, whereupon the frenzy abated for a while. Of course there are regular Galaxy polls that seem to emerge at weekends that give good copy to political journalists for the Sunday papers, and now automated ReachTEL polls are gaining prominence and are given publicity in News Limited media. Those aiming at the heart of Labor use them all as killing machines.

But there are other polls, some longstanding. Morgan Polls have been around since 1941. Morgan conducts both face-to-face and telephone polls. The last one did not replicate the results of the Nielsen poll. Under a heading: Female support rises strongly for the Government after Howard Sattler interview with Prime Minister, Morgan wrote: “Today’s Morgan Poll shows the ALP closing the gap on the L-NP with the L-NP (53.5%, down 2.5% in a week) cf. ALP (46.5%, up 2.5%) after Perth radio host Howard Sattler interviewed Prime Minister Julia Gillard last Thursday and questioned the Prime Minister about her partner’s sexuality. Sattler was subsequently sacked on Friday afternoon by Fairfax Radio and the Morgan Poll which was interviewed after this point shows a clear swing back to the Government. A Fairfax-Nielsen poll released overnight showed the L-NP (57%) cf. ALP (43%) on a two-party preferred basis. However, it is important to note the Fairfax-Nielsen poll was conducted between Thursday and Saturday last week (June 13-15, 2013) which means many of the Fairfax-Nielsen interviews were conducted before the full impact of the Howard Sattler interview and subsequent sacking was known."

Did any of you see the Morgan Poll reported in the Fourth Estate? The only place I saw it was in the Fifth Estate, in Independent Australia. Isn't that strange? No it isn't. Fairfax would not want to diminish the potency of its own killing machine by giving credence to a poll that was at variance with its own, especially the last poll that placed Labor in such a poor light. In fact isn't it strange that we almost never see Morgan Polls given any airing in the Fourth Estate.

And there is the weekly Essential Poll that uses a methodology different from other polls, and aggregates two weeks' polling into each week's result. On June 17 it showed the same result as the previous week: 54/46 TPP, with no dip that could be attributed to the previous week's events. Of course next week it might. But where in the Fourth Estate do you see Essential Polls reported? Both Morgan and Essential seem to be personae non gratae within the Fourth Estate. The only time Essential Media Communications gets exposure is when its Director, Peter Lewis, appears on the ABC’s The Drum.

Polls, Newspoll particularly, and to some extent Nielsen Polls and Galaxy Polls, are used as killing machines by those who use them to attack political parties. This is not to imply that the polls are wrong, or unprofessionally conducted, much less rigged. But there seems little doubt that in the hands of journalists they can be, and are used as killing machines aimed at the party on the decline and ipso facto as boosters to the party on the rise. Polls supply the heavy ammunition; journalists fire it at their target. For the contemporary Fourth Estate, this suits their purpose because the polls match the stories they want to write.

What this piece argues is that commercial polls of voting intention dictate the political dialogue by allowing proprietors, editors and journalists to interpret them as they wish, and thereby create the stories they want to disseminate.

But let me address an issue that infuriates journalists. When anyone suggests they are 'making up stories', or that their stories are just ‘a media beat up', they become highly indignant, insist that their stories have real sources, that the information upon which they base their stories is real, neither imagined nor made up, and that they are simply reporting to the public the information they have sourced, which they insist is their sacred duty, as 'the public has the right to know'. So let's be clear, journalists are fed tidbits, journalists do fossick out bits and pieces of information, and journalists do have their 'sources'. That is not in dispute. What is debatable is the quality of the information they solicit or are offered, that is, its validity and its reliability. Sometimes it is of high quality, and enables them to write important articles. There are many examples we can all recall. It is when the information is of doubtful quality or simply wrong that articles derived from it are suspect or disingenuous.

But even when the information is valid and reliable, it is how the journalist evaluates its importance that determines how the story is written. A tiny piece of information, no matter how valid and reliable, does not a major story make, yet that is what the Fourth Estate too often dishes up to us. Corridor whispers, an overheard comment, a story exchanged between journalists at their favourite drinking hole, seem too often to be the basis for a big story, a prediction of major importance. Reflect for a moment on how many times senior journalists have predicted PM Gillard's political demise, how often they have suggested she step down. They still are! The media, becoming desperate as time for a change runs out, is pulling out all the stops to dislodge our PM. This weekend, Andrew Holden, editor of The Age, perhaps miffed that PM Gillard did not fall on her sword after his Nielsen poll last Monday, is now somewhat arrogantly insisting in an editorial that she must stand aside ‘for the sake of the nation’.

How many times have we been told that she will be gone by Christmas - the killing season – or by Easter, or by the time parliament rises, or when the caucus next meets, or when it has its last meeting, or by whatever date the journalist conjures up, and in any year you care to imagine. Yet she is still standing - 'she won't lie down and die'. Maybe she will meet the fate that has been predicted for almost three years now in the three months before election day. But so far predictions have all been wrong. But like stopped clocks that are bound to be right twice a day, journalists continue to hope that eventually they might be right.

Journalists in the Fourth Estate often place too much reliance on unreliable information, on invalid intelligence, on at times deliberately false information fed to them by people with a subterranean political agenda into which they allow themselves to be sucked, and thereby conned. Faulty information would not be so much of a problem to them if they sat on it until it could be checked for its validity and reliability, an exercise good journalists carry out routinely, but instead they take up their megaphones and shout their paltry and sometimes shonky messages for all to hear, and they go on doing this time and again despite them being wrong over and over. And when something really important does actually happen, they often miss it, as they did when they missed Kevin Rudd's removal until almost the last minute, and completely missed Bob Carr's appointment as Foreign Minister.

By the way, we can’t let journalists off ‘scot-free’ on the charge that they don’t make stories up. Reflect on the second half of last week. There were no more polls, and as far as I am aware no comments from Labor that could be mined for flecks of gold, yet Leigh Sales managed to spend most of her Thursday 7.30 interview of Craig Emerson fishing for leadership tidbits; Tony Jones’ Lateline featured an unnecessarily convoluted piece by Tom Iggulden that explored what might happen constitutionally if leadership changed; and on Friday, ABC news picked up on words Kevin Rudd used on Seven’s Sunrise when asked about a potential bid for leadership: ”I don’t believe there are any circumstances in which that would happen”, and wove them into a story that this was a less vehement denial, and therefore significant! Can you believe it? Yes you can. Journalists do make up some stories, and they do ‘beat up’ others. Read what Michelle had to say about the Leigh Sales interview in her blog piece: Dear Leigh Sales. I’m sure many would echo her sentiments.

It is the rush to the megaphone to shout their stories on every medium they can access without proper checking, or simply the rush to shout a story they have made out of nothing, which characterizes far too much political journalism today, and brings it into disrepute. Is it any wonder the public holds journalists in such low regard, and levels at them accusations of poor quality journalism, of 'making stories up', and of 'media beat ups'?

We all know though that there is another reason for the rush to the megaphone. Journalists, fearful about their own jobs, are mindful of the need to please, or at least not seriously upset, their proprietor and editor. They know their political agenda, which for most of the Fourth Estate seems to be the removal of the Gillard Government and the replacement of it with a Coalition government led by Tony Abbott. Every story about leadership destabilization, every story about PM Gillard being replaced, every related adverse event, is grist to the News Limited and Fairfax mills. So megaphone journalism aimed at discrediting PM Gillard and her Government is OK by these media outlets, no matter how unreliable and flimsy it is. It adds inexorably to the poor image of the PM and the Government it has been creating for years.

Let's return to the killing machines, which for News Limited is its heavy weapon, Newspoll, the most lethal killing machine of all.

Try this exercise in your imagination. Reflect on how different political journalism would be if there were no opinion polls. I realize that means exploring a fantasy world that will never become reality, but bear with me.

Ask yourself what journalists would write about leadership without polls results to underpin their stories. It is the results of the polls of voting intention and personal approval, and comparisons of the popularity of potential leaders (Gillard/Rudd and Abbott/Turnbull) that give them the material they require to write about leadership. It is the poll of who would save the most seats for Labor that energises journalist's comments about leadership. When the TPP is going against a party, particularly the one in power, journalists jump on it because, to use the words they use habitually, it 'calls into question' the position of the leader, and ‘renews/fuels/ignites/heightens leadership speculation’. If the leader is less popular than the contender, as has been the case with Julia Gillard versus Kevin Rudd, if the challenger might save more seats, that adds to the speculation. If there were no poll results, there would be no leadership speculation, as indeed is the case between polls, when speculation subsides. But the day the poll comes out, especially if it is Newspoll, which seems to have assumed superior status among the many polls, the media: print, radio and TV is ablaze with strident recitation of the results and the dire implications. It's great copy for journalists, hungry for a scoop.

Without the polls, they would have to undertake real journalism; they would have to seek sources, solicit information from those whose opinion is worthy, check its veracity, double check, analyze what the sources told them, and reach a considered conclusion about the status of the leader in question. That's arduous work; it involves 'working the phones' and 'wearing out boot leather', as their predecessors once did. Poll results obviate this weary toil. Writing up poll results is child's play, and any interpretation can be placed on any result, depending on what story the journalist wants to write. We saw Dennis Shanahan's convolutions in the dying days of the Howard Government, when, no matter how poor the results were for John Howard, Dennis could always find a ray of hope to head his analysis.

There are other polls, carried out privately by pollsters on behalf of political parties and their supporters. These are never reported publically, but are regularly ‘leaked’. The fact that they are not subject to the same methodological scrutiny as commercial polls means that their validity and reliability are not questioned. The fact that those who commission these polls choose to leak them to the media suggests that the leaking is a tactic to advantage one side or disadvantage the other, or both. That alone calls into question their veracity. While some question the validity of commercial polls on the grounds of methodology, for example the use of landlines versus mobile phones, I believe commercial pollsters are proficient and attempt to do their polling professionally, striving for representative samples of sufficient size. On the other hand, private polling, or at least its reporting, is suspect, as is the output from focus groups. I place no store on reports in the Fourth Estate of private polling.

Of course, polls would have lesser influence on political dialogue if Labor members declined to engage in public or private conversation with insistent journalists hungry to extract a morsel they might be able to fashion into a story. Although they know that whatever they say journalists will use it in whatever way they prefer, politicians seem to be unable or unwilling to tell them to get lost. And even if they stay mute, the headline is: ‘X refused to confirm or deny’, or ‘avoided the question’, leaving the news consumer thinking that something suspect is going on.

Some Labor politicians, the Rudd saboteurs, are deliberately obtuse, and repeatedly feed the story of a Rudd revival to eager journalists, all the more so when Kevin Rudd’s popularity comes out much higher with the public than Julia Gillard’s. They are a destructive force that gives journalists the tidbits and rumors, true or otherwise, that they crave, and do so for their own selfish purpose. Some of the others, who pander to the press by responding to questions and then do so incompetently, seem to be plain stupid, unaware of, or careless about the damage they are doing. Fortunately, there are those who give unequivocal messages about leadership such as Wayne Swan, Craig Emerson, Greg Combet, Bill Shorten, Tanya Plibersek and Peter Garrett, to name just a few. If only the others would emulate them.

So while we can correctly blame the media for the so-called journalism they offer, we need to acknowledge that a few malcontents do feed them bits and pieces from which they construct their stories. What is reprehensible is that most journalists endow such morsels with a credibility they do not deserve, and don’t bother to check their veracity before enthusiastically taking up their megaphones hoping for a scoop.

Stories about poll results have a profound effect over time. While one bad poll result takes its toll, bad result after bad enables journalists to paint a more damaging picture of the party that is lagging – one of a party that is doomed, fated to lose in a landslide, to be reduced to a mere ‘rump’. Add to that the long-standing media narrative that the Gillard Government is ‘the worst government in Australian history’, indeed ‘a bad government getting worse’, that PM Gillard is an incompetent, untrustworthy liar, who makes one mistake after another, that her popularity is sinking inexorably, that she is dragging Labor down to a catastrophic defeat, and you have a vivid picture of a certain loser, who by that account deserves to lose. This image feeds into the next poll and reinforces the negativity. When that poll turns out poorly, the vicious circle continues. Nobody wants to be associated with a loser, so the downward trend is amplified, again and again. This is what so many News Limited journalists want, as do many in Fairfax.

In case you think I’m in a minority in my view that polls are killing machines in the hands of antagonistic journalists, read what Letitia McQuade had to say on Independent Australia in Gillard, polls, porkies and popularity. Read this too in The Conscience Vote: Dear media, write about something else, and Truth Seeker’s Murdoch’s poll machines stuck on spin cycle, and Jeff Sparrow’s piece in The Guardian: What is the Gillard v Rudd civil war all about?.

This piece describes and deplores the malevolent influence that opinion polls of voting intention and popularity have on political discourse in this country. Poll results are ammunition for adversarial journalists to fire at politicians and parties they oppose. They use them ruthlessly to wound and kill their opponents. They use them to reinforce the stories they write, stories too often based on whispers and questionable intelligence; they use them to create a repetitive story of incompetence, of failure, of a fate worse than death at the upcoming election, of a party that must be decisively discarded. Polls are used to manipulate minds in the desired direction; with every negative poll that arrives, the more the voters are persuaded in that direction.

Sadly, amongst all this, policy issues vital to this country’s future, and that of all its citizens, are diluted or simply ignored. How on earth can the voters decide?

In the hands of journalists polls are killing machines, and the most potent of all is News Limited’s Newspoll. And they are killing not just politicians and parties, they are killing the intelligent policy debate every strong democracy needs.

What do you think?

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